In Focus: Has Covid damaged our children forever?

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During her pregnancy early last year, Shubhi Rastogi would often walk around the town where she lived and dream about what life would be like with her new baby.

‘I’d look through cafe windows and imagine myself sipping a coffee as I rocked the pram, chatting to other new mums,’ she remembers. ‘Sometimes I’d daydream about taking my baby on the bus and talking and smiling at the people sitting beside us…’ 

Of course, this wasn’t to be Shubhi’s reality. By the time she gave birth in April 2020, the country was already in lockdown and her daughter Anaisha spent the first year of life in the company of just her parents, often stuck within the four walls of their home. 

‘When we did finally bubble with another family in August last year, Anaisha just cried when they came to visit,’ remembers Shubhi, 37. ‘Now, when we take her out, she is so scared by all the people around her. She doesn’t like anyone touching her and I can tell she feels so uncomfortable around anyone except myself and her daddy. 

‘It will take our little girl a long time to get used to the fact that there are other people in the world.’

Shubhi’s admission falls hot on the heels of NHS warnings this week of an explosion in ‘locked-in trauma’ among children across the UK after repeat lockdowns. They claim that kids as young as five are now having panic attacks about meeting friends for playdates.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Mental Health (CMH) revealed in January that more than half a million previously healthy children had been pushed over the edge by the pandemic needing mental health support for the first time. Since then the NHS has pledged an additional £40million for children’s mental health services.

However, with a growing amount of research emphasising the vital importance of the first 1,001 days of a child’s life in terms of cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development, many new mothers are already worrying about the long-term cost the coronavirus crisis will have on their child’s future. 

Research found that 68% of parents felt that the changes from Covid affected their baby or toddler (Picture: Getty Images)

A recent survey by Mumsnet survey discovered that 77% of mothers are more worried about children missing out on social skills rather than academic skills as a result of lockdown. Their research also found that nearly nine out of 10 mums felt that lockdown was taking a big mental health toll on children and young people.

Another report conducted by Best Beginnings, a UK charity that aims to reduce child health inequalities, revealed that 68% of parents felt that the changes from Covid affected their baby or toddler.

‘Obviously, the pandemic will have had an impact on children’s development because they are developing at the rate of knots from birth until three,’ explains emotional and behavioural psychologist Andrea Chatten.

‘Kids learn from so many other contexts outside of the home. External family and friends have a huge influence on emotional and temporal development.’

Child psychotherapist Alison Bruce, who runs a mother and baby group in south London, says that there are already clear signs of impending issues.

‘Some mums have described how the lockdown anxiety they felt has appeared to manifest in their babies,’ she explains. ‘Things like increased fear, fretfulness and fussiness, difficulties in falling asleep, struggles with breastfeeding – or mothers giving up on breastfeeding earlier than usual – and certainly more intense and lengthy periods of separation anxiety with babies clinging to their mothers.’

Alison adds that there’s also concern surrounding another area of our ‘new normal’: face masks. 

‘Babies learn through non-verbal cues,’ she explains. ‘They follow closely the voice patterns, tone and  intonations. They track eye movement and subtle changes in facial muscles, particularly those of the primary caregiver all as means of taking in communication.

‘Parents are describing their distress at having to wear masks when out of the house. Their babies cannot even see their mum or dad’s own facial expressions, let alone those of strangers. It remains to be seen if the prolonged use of masks will make a difference to the acquisition of language or the ability to confidently read the emotional reaction of the other, but it may lead to complications in adapting and settling in the nursery school years.’

‘I was confused that there wasn’t much help offered to me as a first time mother in the middle of a pandemic,’ says Shubhi (Picture: Shubhi Rastogi)

‘I think Anaisha has been captive in the home for so long so it will take a longer time to explore the world,’ admits Shubhi. ‘Changes are a difficult for her. She hasn’t interacted with many people and cries every time she goes to nursery. If someone tries to pick her up and take her inside, she just gets upset – unless it’s me.

‘She’s also very shy, which I worry might create an issue when she goes to school.’ 

Recalling her first few days of motherhood Shubhi admits they were ‘very sad’, as she had had expected to have help from family and visits with friends, but instead was left alone, all day, every day, with Anaisha. 

‘I wasn’t depressed, but I just cried for no reason. There was so much pain from stitches after birth and pressure around feeding Anaisha. I struggled to take care of myself and baby simultaneously.’ 

However, due to lockdown restrictions, the new mum’s needs weren’t met with much help from family or healthcare professionals. ‘I was confused that there wasn’t much help offered to me as a first time mother in the middle of a pandemic,’ she says. ‘It was the most difficult part of having a baby – being left all by yourself to do everything.’  

Even though Shubhi felt low during those months, she made sure her baby had everything she needed, but it left her exhausted, something she says she still feels now.

She adds that an ongoing concern for the family right now is the impact the travel ban will also have on her daughter. 

‘I wanted Anaisha to know her roots and the traditions of India,’ Shubhi says. ‘Family and culture is an important part of my identity and I’d wanted to expose Anaisha at an early age so that she felt connected too. But that will be difficult now because of restrictions over travelling.’  

It’s something lawyer Henrietta Tweeby can relate to after moving to the UK from South Africa in 2017. She gave birth to her daughter Emilia in August last year. 

‘I’m very close to my family,’ she says. ‘It worries me that Emilia won’t have that same relationship with them, as she missing out on bonding with them from an early age.’ 

‘Emilia isn’t used to anyone else. I feel guilty about it all the time,’ says Henrietta. (Picture: Henrietta Tweeby)

Henrietta, 34, says that when found out she was pregnant in November 2019, she eagerly looked forward to taking maternity leave with her baby. 

‘I was excited to get plugged into a mum network and attend baby classes while I was off work,’ she remembers. ‘But instead I spent it in isolation. Emilia and I spent all of our time together. I did nothing without her. We missed out on all the baby classes, all the baby networks. Maternity leave wasn’t at all what I was expecting. As a small family unit, we have created a lovely bond, but Emilia isn’t used to anyone else. I feel guilty about it all the time.’

According to psychotherapist Alison, being deprived of familial connections in this way could also potentially impede a child’s development. 

‘Extended family acts as a ship’s ballast in the stormy seas of new parenthood,’ she explains. We may see increased and prolonged periods of terrible twos tantruming, more difficult adjustment in nursery schools, more narcissistic behaviours as children do not have the support of grandparents in relinquishing their possessive emotions towards their primary caregivers.’

For single mum Sophie Hughes, her main long term concern for 10-month-old son Will, is his physical health. 

New mum Sophie says she’s worried about the effect lockdown wil have on son Will’s immune system (Picture: Sophie Hughes)

‘I can do all sorts to help his social interactions, but I can’t do anything about his immune system,’ she explains. ‘I’m doing handwashing and antibac so that I don’t catch and spread Covid, but the flip side is that I’m not bringing other germs into the house and he’s not being exposed to them.

‘I’m concerned his immunity isn’t building in the way it should be – he’s only had his first cough recently, which isn’t normal – leaving him more vulnerable to more serious illnesses in the future., and that is the ultimate fear.’

According to Sarah Beeson, a health visitor for over four decades, although this is a natural concern for parents, it’s currently not anything to lose sleep over. 

‘Lockdown babies may catch a lot of infections as they haven’t mixed, mingled, and picked up any viruses – but they will be OK’ she says. Referring to the fact that children used to not start school until four, she says, ‘Now we send kids to playgroups and nurseries, so they are being exposed earlier. Immune systems will readjust. We are more aware of immunity now, but with that extra information comes worry.’ 

What has been a far more concerning issue is the 10% rise of reported cases of domestic abuse in 2020, suspected by experts to be caused by isolation paired with psychological and economic stressors, as well as potential increases in negative coping mechanisms.

Sarah Beeson has been a health visitor for over 40 years (PIcture: Sarah Beeson)

It’s feared that children who have witnessed domestic abuse in the home during lockdown could carry the scars forever.

‘If a child’s early years are disrupted, unhappy or difficult, that will affect them, their future partners, and everyone around them,’ says health visitor Sarah.

‘Most babies will be absolutely fine, but there is a small percentage of children and mothers in dire situations of domestic abuse and neglect.

‘Behaviours imprint on a child’s brain and has a long-term emotional impact. Abuse may not affect intellectual development, but more likely how they see themselves and other people. Children who find themselves in this dire situation could end up seeing history repeat itself later on in life.’

Questions are also being asked about how the pandemic has directly affected new mothers, especially with the threat of postpartum depression lurking behind closed doors. 

‘The thing about postnatal depression is that it can go on for years and people don’t feel right for a long time, so it can affect a baby,’ explains Sarah. ‘In my experience, these mums are still doing a wonderful job of being a mother, but they themselves are suffering.’

‘When we’re going through something difficult, if we don’t feel that anybody understands us, then we tend to feel very alone,’ adds Andrea Chatten. ‘It’s that feeling of isolation that is likely to manifest into mental health problems across the lifespan.

‘The pandemic will have had an impact on children’s development because they are developing at the rate of knots from birth until three,’ says Andrea Chatten (Picture: Andrea Chatten)

As one of the many health professionals, such as midwives, health visitors and GPs who had to stop face-to-face contact during the Covid crisis, Andrea says, ‘It’s the mums who pay ultimately. Now, we’re coming out of lockdown my colleagues and I have to hit the ground running to catch up with anything that might have been missed.’

Clare Stead is a teacher and educator and says that instead of worrying about what they’re not doing, parents need to acknowledge the part they play in their child’s development.

‘Tiny interactions on a daily basis make a significant difference to a child’s development,’ she explains. ‘When a parent understands that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” helps to develop rhythm and rhyme, which develops language acquisition, which develops math understanding – they will appreciate the richness of those tiny moments. Parents need to be aware that their impact is huge. They are the single biggest factor in helping their child be fabulous.

‘Instead of being concerned that your baby or toddler has missed out on yoga, massage, and sign language classes, parents should recognise the strong bonds and relationships children have gained being stuck at home with them and how that will positively influence child development.’

‘Tiny interactions on a daily basis make a significant difference to a child’s development,’ says Claire Stead (Picture: Claire Steed)

These are the kinds of connections that create secure, confident adults, adds Claire, who created baby app Oliiki. ‘Potentially, what we have got is a richer group of kids coming through,’ she says. ‘Families got through a really tough time together. That togetherness builds strong bonds, and we know that children thrive in an environment of strong bonds.’

According to child psychologist Alison Bruce, the truth is it’s simply too early to call just how the Covid crisis will play out in terms of the effect on long-term childhood development.

’The developmental thrust of childhood is powerful,’ she says. ‘We can only guess as to what might become issues in the coming years.’

But Alison does believe we need to be vigilant about potential problems the pandemic may have created, from technology addiction to separation anxiety.

‘One wonders whether these lockdown babies will be more drawn to technology or more averse to it as they get older,’ she says. ‘They met loved ones via remote technology without the touch, smell, or taste. There has been much written about the exhausting effect of Zoom on the established adult brain. What impact has this had on the newly developing infant one?

‘We also see infants more clingy, sleepless and scared to move too far away from the mother,’ she adds.

‘One wonders whether these lockdown babies will be more drawn to technology or more averse to it as they get older,’ says Alison Bruce (Picture: Alison Bruce)

‘We believe that this could, along with the reduction of contact with the extended family, lead to greater struggles with separation anxiety and weaning, difficulties tantruming in the toddler years, challenges with trust and therefore possible increased difficulties in the transition to nursery school.’

Teacher Claire believes that if we want to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, society as a whole needs to understand and take action given the importance of the first few years of life. 

‘Schools, parents, nurseries, health professionals, employers all need to know that a prescription of love, connection, nurture, and play is needed to support these children,’ she explains. 

‘We can make a difference to a children’s development. If you want to pour money anywhere to fight the damage the coronavirus crisis might have on kids, then chuck it in the early years. There is no need for them to be the lost generation.’ 

However, there is hope, insists behavioural psychologist Andrea. ‘We have to remember that the plasticity of children’s brains is enormous,’ she says. 

‘It’s highly unlikely this is going to have any long term, significant impact on children’s development. They will all catch up, but it may be that some are a bit delayed. They will get there in the end.’


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