Lockdown babies: how Covid-19 has impacted infants and their parents
Most children in Northern Ireland are going back to school this week. That is great news.
Lockdown interrupted education and shrank children’s ability to socialise and play with others. It even prevented many from seeing close family, such as grandparents.
Obviously public safety also remains a key priority but as a society we must try and adapt to Covid-19. Top of the list for this process of adaptation is opening schools, and keeping them open.
However, schoolkids were not the only children affected by the pandemic. What about younger children? What about babies born during lockdown?
Last month saw the publication of Babies in Lockdown: listening to parents to build back better, a report produced by Best Beginnings, Home-Start UK, and the Parent-Infant Foundation.
It says that lockdown had a “disproportionate” impact on pregnant women, babies and toddlers.
“The evidence is unequivocal that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life, from pregnancy to age two, lay the foundations for a happy and healthy life. The support and wellbeing of babies during this time is strongly linked to better outcomes later in life, including educational achievement, progress at work and physical and mental health.
“We know that 2,000 babies are born in the UK every day, which means that over 200,000 babies were born when lockdown was at its most restrictive, between 23rd March and 4th July. Our survey suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on these babies could be severe and may be long-lasting.”
Covid-19 has had a large variety of significant impacts on parents, babies, toddlers, and the services they all rely upon.
The researchers found that families already at risk of poorer outcomes tended to be hardest hit. This included families with lower incomes, young parents, and those from BAME communities. They also state that the consequences of the pandemic could be long lasting.
The report was based on a survey of over 5,000 respondents. Its findings about the impact on children include:
- Almost 7 in 10 (68%) parents felt the changes brought about by COVID-19 were affecting their unborn baby, baby or young child.
- A third of respondents thought their child’s interactions with them had changed during the lockdown period.
- A quarter of parents reported concerns of their relationship with their child, with over a third of those parents saying they would like help.
- Almost half (47%) of parents reported that their baby had become more clingy, while 26% reported they were crying more than usual. The numbers of parents reporting such changes were twice as high amongst those on the lowest incomes compared with those on the highest.
The report features short testimonies illustrating what these changed relationships can be like. One example is from a 24-year-old woman from Scotland, who is five months pregnant and has a two-year-old child:
“My two-year-old has become violent and upset quite a lot of the time due to this. He’s finding it hard just seeing and being in contact with two people. I fear for the effects this lockdown will have on him later in life.”
Parents and services
The effects of lockdown go beyond the children. Per the report, parents, and support services, have also encountered challenges.
Over 6 in 10 (61%) parents shared significant concerns about their mental health, 87% said they were more anxious as a result of Covid-19 and lockdown, while 68% of parents said their ability to cope with their pregnancy or child has been impacted by COVID-19.
Having to work in particular sectors – especially on the Covid-19 frontline – is another stressor for parents of babies or infants. Nearly half (46%) of NHS, social care or other healthcare staff who are pregnant or have young children are concerned about staying safe at work.
The nature of social distancing measures means that need for services has gone up at the same time as delivering those services has become more difficult.
Almost 40% of pregnant respondents to the survey said they were concerned about getting reliable information and advice. People with lower incomes tended to feel less equipped with necessary information during and after pregnancy compared with those in the highest income bracket (23% with incomes under £16k vs. 16% of those earning over £90k).
Only one in ten parents of under twos have seen a health visitor face to face during lockdown. Over half of mums with babies are breastfeeding (55%). However, over half of those using formula had not planned to do so (53%) while over a quarter (28%) of those who are breastfeeding feel they have not had the support they required.
Call to action
The three organisations who undertook this research have developed three calls to action for policy makers:
- A one-off Baby Boost to enable local services to support families who have had a baby during or close to lockdown.
- A new Parent-Infant Premium providing new funding for local commissioners, targeted at improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children.
- Significant and sustained investment in core funding to support families from conception to age two and beyond, including in statutory services, charities and community groups.
In a joint statement accompanying the report, Alison Baum OBE (Founder and CEO of Best Beginnings), Peter Grigg (CEO of Home-Start UK), and Dr Beckie Lang (CEO of the Parent-Infant Foundation) said: “From the fear of infection at hospital appointments and economic anxiety, to isolation from loved ones and lack of face-to-face support from frontline services, the aftershocks are being felt across social and geographic demographics.
“Some parents reported enjoying the benefits of a slower life and more time together at home, many more reported anxiety, confusion, grief and loss. All have had to navigate huge uncertainty but the experiences of this have been dramatically unequal.
“As we begin to rebuild after the pandemic, our research highlights how important it will be to move beyond pre-pandemic support structures for families. We need to shift from the patchy, fragmented and decimated family support landscape to a nurturing society that supports the caregiving capacity of parents during their transition to parenthood.
“Support and services should wrap around the needs of families and communities. This will happen if parents are enabled to take a lead in designing better systems, working alongside charities, community groups, and statutory services.
“For this vision to become a reality, we call for an immediate Baby Boost investment for COVID-19 generation babies, families and communities to mitigate the detrimental impact that the pandemic is having on infant and parental mental and physical health.
Alongside this, we urge the Westminster Government to develop the Parent-Infant Premium – a mechanism to provide longer-term, sustainable investment in effective support for families that addresses the inequalities faced by too many babies – and for the devolved nations to spend the funds in the best way they identify to narrow gaps in outcomes.
“Together these investments will improve outcomes, save money, reduce inequalities and avoid a multi-generational post-pandemic lottery.”
There are two key messages to highlight here, both of which deserve attention. Firstly, the effects of the pandemic are set to be long-term. This does not mean they cannot be mitigated against, and policy makers should strive to do just that.
Secondly, ante- and post-natal services were far from perfect before Covid-19 yet, as is widely accepted, the first few years of a child’s life are crucial for their development and their life chances. Investing in good services for babies, infants and their parents is, in some ways, the ultimate in long-term thinking. Politicians should bear that in mind.
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