Concerns for children being deprived of schooling are dominating our newsfeeds, but new parents are asking whether babies too might suffer the effects of lockdown?
In 1989, news emerged of children, many only days or weeks old, living in horrendous conditions in Romanian orphanages. As well as scarce food, poor hygiene and physical abuse, they were consistently deprived of human contact.
Studies of these children gave rise, in part, to our understanding of the long-term consequences of social isolation during infancy.
Researchers have followed children adopted from these orphanages into English homes. In 2017, they reported results showing effects persisting right through to adulthood. Adoptees showed an increased risk of poorer educational achievement, unemployment and use of mental health services.
Of course, this level of severe deprivation is an incredibly long way from the reduced social contact currently facing babies. But it serves as a stark reminder that our very earliest experiences play a major role in shaping who we become.
An odd start to life
It’s estimated that 76,000 babies have been born in England since social distancing was introduced.
Amy gave birth to her son, Henry, a few weeks into the pandemic. She is deeply worried that his first taste of the world is so unlike her own. Instead of being passed between admiring friends or cooed at by strangers in the park, he’s spent his first few months with only her for company.
So far, concerns about the impact of reduced social interaction have largely focussed on older children. But babies are social creatures too.
Despite their predilection for sleeping, eating and crying, they are born already able to recognise a recording of their mother’s voice.
By two years old, they have developed a multitude of social skills. They can distinguish the emotional meaning in different facial expressions, understand different people can have different preferences, and appreciate certain actions are intended to achieve certain goals.
The importance of a ‘secure base’
Amy can take comfort from the broad scientific consensus that a stable, secure relationship with a primary caregiver is the most important factor for development.
Dr Elizabeth Pike is a Clinical Psychologist and mother to 20 month old Oliver. She explains, ‘that person is the baby’s secure base – when they are with them, they feel safe and settled enough to learn about the world and others in it’.
With some exceptions (if, say, a key-worker parent stays away to reduce the risk of transmission) the pandemic has not separated babies from those caregivers. In many cases, furlough or remote working means parents are actually spending more time with their newborns.
‘This means’ says Dr Pike, ‘babies should generally still be able to learn enough about interaction from the immediate family they are with’.
Babies are learning all the time
Dr Keri Wong is a Developmental Psychologist at University College London studying childhood mental health. She says although the primary caregiver relationship is ‘absolutely irreplaceable’, we can’t be completely certain what will predict different behaviours later in life because it’s impossible to run a controlled experiment. ‘After all’ she says, ‘you can’t just assign a baby to a neglected or reject group to test your theory’.
For her, the key thing is that ‘babies learn really quickly and all the time. When children are developing, they are actually learning from everyone and their interactions with everyone count’. Right now, some babies may be missing out on these sorts of additional learning opportunities.
Still, Dr Wong is optimistic. She says ‘babies are in a very fluid stage of their development, so at the moment I can’t imagine it having really terrible effects. Hopefully, the research later won’t prove me wrong’.
In the meantime, like the rest of us, new parents are attempting to alleviate the effects of social isolation through video calls.
Experiments show children as young as one can learn via virtual conversations. Dr Wong suggests young babies have the advantage of not remembering things they cannot see (known as object permanence). This means they don’t necessarily understand the person on the screen isn’t actually in the room. ‘So’ she says ‘they might not miss people as much because they can still see them online during the pandemic’.
Hopefully adults are aware the people they’re interacting with are physically remote. But the currently-ubiquitous zoom quizzes and virtual happy hours can still offer vital emotional support for new parents themselves. This is crucial, given the well-documented consequences of poor parental emotional wellbeing on infant development.
“It’s not just you finding it hard”
‘It’s particularly challenging for parents to be a safe base at the moment, when the world feels so unsafe’ says Dr Pike. As a result some babies may be at risk of an indirect impact of social distancing via their parents’ mental health. For example, she says, ‘if a parent’s mental health is affected then they may be less responsive, and their baby may become more anxious as a result’.
Support offered by organised groups normally has a huge positive impact on many parents’ emotional well-being. Dr Pike says ‘modern parenting has become more isolated in terms of older generations living further away, but mums always had local groups to join, to try to build their own support network.’
As a new parent herself, she knows only too well the value of drawing on a wider network for support. She says ‘it makes such a difference after a sleepless night if someone can come over to look after the baby so you can nap, or meet other mums for coffee and realise it’s not just you finding it hard’.
Little support for struggling families
Last week, the Children’s Commissioner also highlighted the current lack of support for struggling parents.
She warned that switching services to online or telephone consultations makes it harder for parents to divulge difficulties or for authorities to detect abuse. This could put some babies at increased risk of issues like maltreatment or malnutrition.
Figures are showing 1.5 million Britons going whole days without food and more than 1 million losing their entire income. So thousands of new parents will be struggling. Unsurprisingly, charities like NSPCC are reporting record levels of demand.
Even without those more tangible harms, parents facing a daily struggle to survive may well not have the emotional resource to take part in engaged and attentive interactions with their infants.
Dr Wong warns that during lockdown we might ‘expect parents spending more time at home to be spending more time with their child, but that may not always be the case.’
Take households where multiple children are currently off school for instance. For these babies, there may be far less attention available than there would be normally.
Vaccines, treatment, testing
Ultimately, we won’t know the true impact of lockdown on babies until the crisis has abated and researchers have been able to explore the data.
Studies of the Romanian adoptees showed deprivation lasting less than six months had few long-term effects, making speedy successes with vaccines, treatment and/or testing, all the more important.
For now, psychologists agree that babies living in secure, nurturing environments may well emerge from their odd start to life unscathed. For babies born into more challenging circumstances, support for parents is vital to make sure they don’t pay a higher price.
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