THE devastating impact of the pandemic response on the under-fives has been revealed in research from the parent campaign group UsforThem.
In survey of 647 parents, 60 per cent reported being more concerned about their child’s development than they were at the start of the coronavirus restrictions.
This comes at a time when visits from health visitors are severely restricted. Eighty-six per cent of parents with children under two report no home visits, with video conferencing not providing the same opportunities for professionals to observe children’s development.
A report by University College London shows the extent of the harm this could be causing. Ninety-six per cent of health visitors surveyed were concerned that they may be missing violence towards children. Paediatric trauma wards have witnessed a surge in injuries caused by child physical abuse during the pandemic.
In addition to the decline in home visits, the UsforThem survey revealed that almost 50 per cent of new mothers had no access to either baby weighing clinic or in-person breastfeeding support.
These groups are a lifeline for new mothers, providing not only practical health checks for the baby, but also the opportunity for parents to seek crucial advice and support.
The vast majority of these groups are now held online. However, research suggests the effectiveness of virtual versus face-to-face contact is uncertain. Without the practical, emotional and social support of these face-to-face groups, combined with other aspects of lockdown, both parent and child wellbeing are likely to suffer.
Comments from mothers who were surveyed support this picture. One said: ‘My baby has not been weighed since birth. I have no idea if they are on the right track, as health visitors said clinics (are) closed, and appointment only if something (is) really wrong. No groups either or support.’
Another confided: ‘My mental health has affected my ability to care and be compassionate with my children’ and ‘I believe, due to the pandemic, it has increased the anxiety in both me and my son’.
Understandably, the welfare of parents directly affects their ability to communicate positive and nurturing messages to their children – crucial factors in youngsters developing into adults who can achieve their greatest potential and live happy adulthoods. The impact of these factors is more severe among families living in poverty and deprivation.
The risk of deterioration in maternal mental health is compounded by the closure of playgroups and children’s centres across the country. Three-quarters of respondents attended playgroups before the pandemic. Of those, 65 per cent said they did so, in part, to meet other parents.
The vital support provided by these groups was acknowledged by the Government and they were given an exemption to open under Tier 4. Nevertheless, 75 per cent of parents have seen their local playgroups remain shut throughout.
The frustration is tangible: ‘My child is an only child, and has had virtually no interaction with other children of ANY AGE, ALL YEAR,’ was a typical mother’s comment. ‘Swimming is socially distanced, baby yoga too. Play centres are the only place where parents let kids play normally together, and they’ve hardly been open.’
In presenting the findings of a recent report by The Royal Foundation into early-years development, the Duchess of Cambridge warned that the pandemic had dramatically increased parental loneliness.
Affecting 63 per cent of parents, loneliness, along with factors such as financial insecurity and a feeling of being trapped, is associated with a condition called, ‘parental burnout’.
More commonly noted in lower-income families, this is understood as a prolonged response to chronic and overwhelming parental stress. The result is abuse and neglect towards children in parents who would otherwise be able to cope. Lockdown measures may be creating conditions for parental burnout when it would not otherwise occur.
The impact of restrictions on childhood socialisation was alarming for the majority of parents surveyed. Particularly from age three upwards, children learn vital socialisation skills which shape their relationships for the rest of their lives.
Clinical psychologist Dr Harrie Bunker-Smith says: ‘Play and social interaction are crucial for child development. They enable the development of skills such as sharing and problem-solving, building and maintaining relationships, and in turn further developing a child’s sense of self. These allow our little ones to grow up to be the happiest and most successful adults they can be.’
Before the pandemic, 90 per cent of parents reported attending playgroups so their children could interact with kids their own age. Now that facilities are closed and the population is restricted from meeting family and friends, there is a marked drop in opportunities for children to play together.
Of those children not attending formal childcare, the UsforThem survey showed that 50 per cent spent less than half an hour socialising with other children in a given week. Again, it is the least advantaged that suffer the most, as children from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to access childcare.
Studies show that isolated children who do not get crucial early social experiences are more likely to grow into adults with higher psychological distress and reduced academic attainment.
The comments from parents on socialisation exude a general sense of dismay; parents watching helplessly as separation from other children takes its toll on their child. ‘The Covid restrictions have been absolutely terrible for my boy,’ one mother reports. ‘He has become scared of people, including children, and stopped speaking completely, including to say even yes or no.’
Another writes: ‘My youngest has a number of development delays. It’s really hard to tell how much of that is down to the pandemic and the fact that he has barely been able to socialise with other children his own age.’
Even without marked developmental delays, parental instincts are on the alert: ‘I worry about his social development sometimes and what this may do to his confidence.’
It is unsurprising that 61 per cent of parents no longer take their child out on everyday errands, or take them out significantly less than they used to.
Of those children still regularly participating in everyday activities, there have been instances of under-fives being banned from libraries, places of worship and retail outlets. This further restricts opportunities for young children to learn more about the world. And yet social development relies on children observing and eventually modelling behaviour they see around them.
With so many groups closed and wider family and community prevented from plugging the gap, parents are resorting to screens.
A study for Oxford Brookes University showed 75 per cent of babies and toddlers spent more time on screens during the initial lockdown. Covering the period up to December 2020, the UsforThem survey puts the figure at 68 per cent.
This is in spite of NHS guidelines recommending no screen time for children under two, and only one hour for those aged two and above.
When asked if they would like their children to spend more time with kids of a similar age, but are prevented from doing so by the pandemic regulations, 76 per cent of parents said they would. Their anxiety and frustration is palpable.
And what of the frustration of the children themselves? Missing out on the most fundamental aspects of childhood – play, friendships, going outside and experiencing day-to-day life; the confusion of being forced to isolated for 14 days should a Covid case arise in their group.
It is therefore unsurprising that incidences of anger amongst children and young people have increased, with an exponential rise in child violence towards parents of the most vulnerable children and those with special educational needs.
In an Oxford University study, 69 per cent of social workers reported an increase in referrals for families experiencing CAPV – Child and Adolescent Parental Violence – and 64 per cent said the severity or incidence of violence had increased.
It is almost ten months since pandemic restrictions were put in place and still no end is in sight. For many parents, the hope that their children will quickly bounce back is receding.
Professionals working across all child development sectors are expressing a profound concern about children’s capacity to withstand these conditions.
For a great number of parents the harm is felt instinctively. Without recourse to friends, family and community to meet the need left by closures, parents are forced to accept the tragic reality that they simply may not be able to give their child the start in life that they had hoped to.
Dr Bunker-Smith reminds us that ‘our early experiences significantly inform the rest of our lives; our academic achievement, our relationships, our levels of long-term wellbeing and our outlook on life itself. It is vitally important that we remember the long-term consequences of decisions which impact our youngest members of society’.