This blog post takes a look at the potential mental health effects of the Covid19 lockdown on our babies and young children.

I am one of many mums with a young baby during the Covid19 pandemic. I am at least fortunate enough that mine was born in February when we were not quite in lockdown. Grandparents and close family were able to get their cuddles in while Isaac was a tiny newborn. I am so thankful for that, even if it has now been over 3 months since they last saw him.

Any benefits of lockdown?

With a Masters in Experimental Psychology and a Primary PGCE I have some basic understanding of child development and attachment. I have sought comfort in the knowledge that newborn babies will not be too affected by the pandemic. In fact, lockdown can have benefits for such young babies and their parents. As I explain in a previous blog post about lockdown, Isaac has had the unusual benefit of having both his parents around him 24/7. My husband has been able to work from home. He joins us for lunch and the two of them have a special time together every morning (while I have a lie in – win win!) This is far from the norm for most dads (and some mums). Many are back to work away from home after a couple of weeks’ paternity leave.

Parents are the greatest predictor of a baby’s development. As Dr Abigail Wright explains in a video on BBC news, young babies do not suffer from physical distance from anyone besides their parents. I feel this strange situation could actually help to foster more secure attachments between parents and their babies.

But what about older babies?

At 4 months old my baby falls within the ‘indiscriminate attachments’ group: “Infants indiscriminately enjoy human company, and most babies respond equally to any caregiver. They get upset when an individual ceases to interact with them. From 3 months infants smile more at familiar faces and can be easily comforted by a regular caregiver” (simplypsychology.org). I interpret this to mean that Isaac should not be overly affected by lockdown ending. He should have no trouble bonding with other members of his family.

However, at around 7-9 months babies hit a new stage of attachment where they form a ‘specific attachment’. At this stage babies can become afraid of being away from their primary caregivers and experience stranger fear and separation anxiety. I predict that some parents will need to be more careful and bear this in mind when introducing their little ones to friends and family after lockdown. It may be trickier for the babies of 2020 to form attachments with others, especially once these strong specific attachments are formed. Keeping in touch with friends and family with Skype or Zoom may be particularly useful for babies of this age.

In any case, most babies are forming multiple attachments by 18 months. Interestingly, a prominent study by Schaffer and Emerson (1964) showed that babies form the best attachments to those that respond accurately to their signals (showing sensitive responsiveness). Therefore, spending the most time with a baby does not automatically lead to the strongest attachment. This is a promising finding for those who have been physically separated from little ones in their lives during lockdown.

The amazing resilience of children

What about older children? How will they be affected?

I have been amazed at the resilience I have seen from older children in my family during this crazy time. I saw something on Facebook about not only ‘clapping for carers’ but also ‘clapping for children’ and I think whoever thought of this was spot on!

There are many examples where children have astounded adults with their strength: losing family members; coping with bullying and surviving parental divorce being just a few. Children generally have the resilience to ‘bounce back’ from most stressful and upsetting life events. Lockdown, from what I have seen, has been no different.

Home-schooling has been particularly strange and often difficult for children over the last few months. It seems to have taken this pandemic for many to realise just how much they actually love school!

Speaking to your child about Covid19

Having said this, children’s mental health must not be swept under the rug. We cannot assume that all children are coping fine with lockdown or the pandemic. It is so important to follow this advice paraphrased from mentalhealth.org.uk:

  • Acknowledge that it is OK for your child to feel concerned and that all emotions should be expressed.
  • Find a balance with the amount of news you share with your child; try to give them the facts if they ask for them but don’t overwhelm them. Also be careful not to share your own fears about the virus; save this for another adult out of the earshot of children.
  • Talk to your children about their responsibilities to help vulnerable people, explaining what the terms ‘vulnerable’ and ‘shielding’ means. I have been so proud of my nieces, aged just 3 and 5. Their understanding of the importance of social distancing is brilliant and they have adhered to the rules better than many adults!

Life for little’uns beyond lockdown

I am not overly concerned about our little ones readjusting to life after lockdown. Research suggests that young babies in particular will be completely unaffected. I think, if anything, they may have better attachments to their parents than they may otherwise have had.

If you are worried about your child adapting to life after lockdown, perhaps experiencing heightened ‘back to school’ nerves, then be sure to keep your lines of communication open.

Most likely scenario? Us adults will need more support to get our mental health back on track than our children. Please know where to go for help and know you are not alone.

Sending virtual hugs to you all!