Lockdown babies and being a first-time parent during the pandemic
26 August 2021
How have COVID-19 control measures affected early development and the transition to parenthood?
I was five months pregnant when the first lockdown started in the UK. Up to that point, I was doing everything I had expected to do in anticipation of my first child. I enjoyed going to yoga and had signed up for antenatal classes. We took printouts of the first ultrasound scan with us when we visited my family in California at Christmas. But as fears about COVID-19 grew and more restrictions were introduced in early 2020, the services and support available to us were significantly reduced. Yoga was cancelled and antenatal classes moved online. My husband wasn’t allowed to join me for the second ultrasound.
My son was born in the summer of 2020, when most routine services had been pared down. I accessed virtual breastfeeding support and my postnatal GP check was conducted over the phone. Our family and friends were mostly unable to visit, and those who did visit couldn’t come within two metres of the baby, let alone hold him. For most of my son’s first year, usual resources like mum and baby groups were closed, limiting our access to social interaction and support. International travel remains difficult, and my parents have still not met their first grandchild in person.
Despite the difficulties associated with being a ‘lockdown baby’, my son is now a happy, healthy and sociable one-year-old. Still, as my experience was far from unique, I can’t help but wonder how restrictions introduced during the height of the pandemic have affected the thousands of children who were born during this time, and their parents.
My son was born in the summer of 2020, when most routine services had been pared down. International travel remains difficult, and my parents have still not met their first grandchild in person.
Early life experiences are pivotal for a child’s development
A child’s first 1,000 days are widely considered to be the most important period for growth and development. The body and brain grow more quickly during this time than any other, and we know that early life experiences lay the foundations for health and wellbeing for the rest of a person’s life.
During the first few years of life, babies’ brains are wired in response to their experiences as they form connections between their senses and begin to understand emotions. Everyday learning, interactions and relationships are fundamental to shaping these processes and establishing how babies will continue to learn and interact with others as they grow up.
Physical health is also significantly influenced by early life factors. Good nutrition, including breastfeeding and healthy early diet, is linked to a range of health outcomes later in life and may reduce risk of diabetes and obesity.
COVID-19 restrictions have made the transition to parenthood more difficult
Restrictions on social interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic have left many parents worried about the effect on their children’s budding social skills. I was certainly concerned about how my son would cope with starting nursery at 10 months when nobody but my husband or I had ever taken care of him.
Of real concern is the dramatic increase in postpartum depression. During the first lockdown in the UK, rates more than doubled, to 47.5% of all new mothers experiencing it. This is perhaps not surprising, as depression and other mental health crises increased across the general population during the pandemic. Postpartum depression is damaging to physical and mental wellbeing, can harm the mother–child relationship and can impact the child’s health and development.
During the first lockdown in the UK, rates of postpartum depression more than doubled, with it affecting 47.5% of all new mothers.
Before the pandemic, the UK already had one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and lack of support during lockdown made it even more difficult for many women to breastfeed. The only support available to me was a video call, which was – honestly – totally inadequate. While I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to continue, and it slowly got easier, I can understand why breastfeeding is just too much for plenty of new mothers who are also facing so many other challenges.
Will lockdown babies experience long-term effects from the pandemic?
Now that COVID-19 restrictions have all but ended in the UK, it is once again possible to socialise with friends and family in person, which will surely benefit children who have been isolated since early 2020. It also means that parents can call on ‘the village’ for a hand – something I have personally found incredibly helpful.
Some effects of the pandemic are not so easily solved and may require a dedicated approach. Children may benefit from programmes that include conversations and education about emotions to improve their emotional understanding and empathy. Parents who are struggling with postpartum depression and issues like breastfeeding will also need support.
Everyone has made sacrifices during lockdowns to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and many have struggled in some way. Lockdown babies and their parents have missed out on many of the things that have been taken for granted for generations, and some may need support to get back on track.