Pandemic life may have lasting effects on babies, but it’s taking an even greater toll on their parents
Experts say we should be more worried about how social isolation and financial hardship are hindering parents’ mental health and, in effect, their ability to withstand the pressures of new parenthood.
One of six children in a close-knit family, Brittany Sanchez envisioned a celebratory homecoming for her firstborn, with relatives and friends stopping by to dote on the new addition.
But, born in the middle of a pandemic, Luna has had a quiet welcome to the world, with little interaction with her extended family and few trips beyond her home.
In addition to the standard worries of new parenthood, Sanchez thinks a lot about how social isolation will affect Luna’s development, how it already is affecting her own well-being and parenting stamina.
“We’ve been on pilot mode because if you do stop and think about it all, it does suck,” said Sanchez, 27, of Philadelphia. “I’m trying not to spiral downhill with thinking about no visitors and a newborn. … Do I have my moments where I just want to sit and cry about it all? Absolutely.”
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the support systems families rely on to raise their children and while the youngest won’t remember missed birthday parties and mask wearing, it may still have lasting effects for infants and toddlers. Parents worry their infants’ speech and social skills will lag for lack of interaction with others. But doctors and development specialists say we should be more worried about how social isolation and financial hardship during the pandemic are hindering parents’ mental health and, in effect, their ability to withstand the pressures of new parenthood.
“This is not ‘they’re too little to remember and so we shouldn’t be concerned,’ ” said Philip Fisher, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Translational NeuroScience at the University of Oregon.
Since April, Fisher has led a team studying the effect of “toxic stress” during the pandemic through an ongoing survey of at least 1,000 families, called the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development-Early Childhood (RAPID-EC).
Stress is considered toxic when it is severe and unrelenting, such as ongoing difficulty paying for housing, food, and other basic necessities. Toxic stress has been shown to negatively affect children’s emotional and physical development, even contributing to a greater risk of depression, diabetes, and heart disease as they reach adulthood.
By August, 40% of families surveyed reported some hardship paying for basic needs, with Black, Hispanic, and single parent households reporting even higher levels of difficulty, according to RAPID-EC’s findings. Half of the families experiencing financial hardship reported their children showed signs of emotional distress.
“If you have a very loving and caring relationship with your child, but you’re worried about running out of food or having to leave the house to go to work in potentially unsafe conditions … those kinds of experiences are taking their toll on adults to be able to provide the nurturing care their children need,” Fisher said.
Could the pandemic delay infant development?
Lauren Triplett feels fortunate to live with her parents, brother and sister, all of whom helped her get through the tough early months of parenthood and, in January, return to work.
“If it wasn’t for them I probably would have lost my mind,” said Triplett, 29, of Sicklerville, N.J. “There’s little stuff day to day, I can see how if you don’t have that support you could get so overwhelmed and things go to the wayside — like your basic self care.”
But she worries that Amelia, who was born in September, is missing out on the socialization benefits of meeting new people and seeing their facial expressions. Both of Triplett’s grandmothers came to meet the baby, but that was months ago and they wore masks.
Babies learn social, emotional, and language skills by reading people’s facial expressions — an early developmental milestone is returning a caregiver’s smile. Bridget Garvin, a psychologist with St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, has heard from parents concerned that mask-wearing and a lack of social interaction will hinder their child’s development.
Fortunately, she said, it’s one worry parents can cross off their list.
“Having opportunities to be around other babies is always a nice way to reinforce some of the social skills babies primarily learn from their caregivers,” Garvin said. “But parents are the first and most important teachers for babies.”
Parents worried about their child’s lack of socialization should make extra time to interact with their babies by babbling back to them, making faces and playing games.
Video calls with family members can help begin building a relationship with extended relatives.
Pediatricians typically discourage screen time for young children, but say video calls are OK because they are more interactive than passively watching a television show.
Veronica Briggs, a New Jersey-based postpartum doula and owner of Milestones Birth & Beyond, suggests showing babies pictures of relatives and friends or investing in a digital photo frame to watch together, so they can get to know faces they will hopefully see in person sometime soon.
“It’s hard to accept ‘I’m enough for my baby’ because you always hear ‘it takes a village,’ but you are enough,” she said.
Pandemic isolation takes toll on new parents
While not necessary for infants’ development, playdates with other children and their parents, exercise classes, music sessions, library groups and other “mommy and me” type activities are important for parents’ mental health, Briggs said.
With many of those activities suspended during the pandemic, Briggs is seeing more parental isolation and related mental health challenges, such as postpartum depression that can be triggered when new parents do not have the support they need.
“Babies pick up on different cues, they’re feeling the energy, sensing body language. During this time, a lot of families are going through hardship, loss of jobs, isolation — all those things can disrupt parenting,” Briggs said.
Rachel Nachmias, 35, and her husband have been fortunate to be able to work from their Morristown home during the pandemic and are doing well, “given the circumstances,” she said. But after adding a new baby to the list of stressors they were already coping with — anxiety about being in public, inability to gather with friends — the pandemic is taking its toll.
“It would be nice to be able to step away from the baby sometimes, but there’s nowhere to go,” said Nachmias, who rarely leaves home, even to get groceries. “Even if my husband takes her for a few hours, where am I going to go?”
Juniper was born in December, and since then has had few outings — just the doctor’s office and her maternal grandparents’ house. She’s never met her paternal grandparents or her cousin born a couple months before her.
Nachmias said she isn’t too worried yet about the lack of social interaction affecting Juniper, but her opinion may change depending on how long the pandemic continues.
Sanchez and her boyfriend, Luna’s father, are also anxious for the isolation to end. So much has happened in the last year — and they were so alone for most of it.
Sanchez, a postpartum nurse, had a difficult pregnancy and Luna spent two weeks in the NICU after she was born, with only one parent allowed with her at a time.
Now that they’re all home, Sanchez aches to welcome friends and family into their home to meet Luna. Whether it’s OK to loosen their rules has become a constant internal struggle.
“Who knows how long we’re going to be in this pandemic for. Do you keep the tight restrictions until it’s over? Or do you start loosening restrictions here and there?” she said, “How long do you live like this?”