How has the pandemic affected child development?
For babies born into the pandemic, they have experienced a world like no other. Faced with limited social interaction, and reduced opportunities to leave the home, many also experienced associated anxiety from worried parents and caregivers who were dealing with financial and emotional stress.
What we do know is that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial for brain development, and in particular the baby’s first year, when the brain doubles in size. This early development relies on having varied experiences, and particularly social interaction, which stimulates and helps the brain develop.
Babies need to be touched, held, spoken to, smiled at, played with. As they receive and respond to those interactions, neural connections are built in the brain. When babies don’t have those interactions, or enough of them, their brains don’t develop as they should. Therefore, we are exploring whether these early experiences could shape their behaviour and development for life.
What does early research into the pandemic show us?
There have been small amounts of research about the immediate impact and the challenges these now 2- and 3-year-olds are facing. Although a significantly relevant topic area, there is still very little support and advice available to help those working with and supporting the long-term development of those children who were born into the pandemic.
The scientists at Oxford Brookes University Babylab conducted two pieces of research to understand how the development of babies’ and toddlers’ thinking and regulation skills might be affected by an extended and isolated period of time spent at home during the pandemic.
Children who show strong thinking and regulation skills at a young age have been found to do better at school, and live happier, healthier lives.
The research that showed parents who spent more time engaging in different activities with their baby or toddler reported that they had stronger thinking skills. Children from less privileged backgrounds spent more time using screens during the Spring & Winter 2020 lockdowns and high screen usage was linked to poorer thinking and regulation skills. This indicates that the developmental gap between children from differing backgrounds has been further increased by the effects of the pandemic.
This article from Harvard Health Medical school references a study that reports that babies born during the pandemic scored lower in gross motor, fine motor, and social-emotional development than the babies born before the pandemic, with the impacts having the potential to be lifelong:
“Even though we need to do more research, this study should serve as an alarm bell for us as a society. The children of this pandemic may carry some scars forever if we don’t act now. We’ve been seeing the emotional and educational effects on children; we need to be aware of the developmental effects on babies, too. All of these could permanently change their lives”.
What are the long-term implications of the pandemic on children?
Crucially, there is very little in the way of forecasting research to show what the potential long-term impact could be – and how we can course correct these infants now, to give them the best possible chance of a positive future.
To build some insight around this topic area, we’ve brought together a global panel of experts who will draw on their combined experience of resilience, connection and psychological insights to suggest what these long-term impacts could be – and most importantly, what we can do NOW to shift developmental trajectories.
Our expert panel:
Dr Michael Ungar, world-renowned resilience expert and Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada
Erika Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and New York Times bestselling author
Alistair Bryce-Clegg, Early Years expert and global webinar host
Professor David Daley, Professor of Psychological Intervention and Behaviour Change
Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Global Research Scientist and Infant Specialist