Infant Socialization In A Pandemic Era - Will It Affect Development?
As a new mom, dad, or caregiver, are you starting to wonder what the effects of prolonged isolation at home during the pandemic will have on your new baby? As a paediatric physiotherapist, mother, and friend to many new- and soon-to-be mothers, I've been asking myself this question more and more the longer this pandemic goes on. I hope my answer will help quiet your growing concerns and give you some practical tools to help work on important milestones at home.
I LIVED for my baby group with my first (and second) babes. We met early on and structured our days around swimming lessons, storytime, circle time, early years drop-ins and meet-ups at the park. Playdates in our homes included shared snacks and runny noses (gasp!) and we watched as our babies learned communication, social, emotional, and motor skills from each other. As good as it was for the kids, it also provided our group of moms with the emotional support (and outlet!) that we needed to get through the long days, and longer nights.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I've talked to numerous new parents who have noticed that their little ones have stranger-danger with almost everyone they meet, including grandparents, friends, and family members. These parents are often concerned that their little one might be responding in fear to the masks on everyone's faces, and could potentially be missing out on crucial socialization opportunities.
The thing is, there isn't any long-term data at this point to actually assess the effects of social and physical distancing on babies born shortly before, or during the pandemic. We have some information on isolation and its effects when it comes to cases of abuse, but it's incredibly important to stress that we can't relate that to the effects of social isolation with loving parents. We DO know that babies undergo rapid development from birth to preschool, and we, as parents, should provide them with as many opportunities to learn and grow as possible to help them on this journey. Regardless of whether that includes physical interaction with people outside of your household or not.
As for the perceived stranger-danger, it turns out that playing shy is actually a developmental stage for kiddos that begins to develop at 6-8 months of age. Obviously, exposure to more people can help this, particularly when it's in an otherwise welcoming and stress-free environment, but it certainly doesn't prevent kids from overcoming this normal developmental milestone. When it comes to concerns that masks make stranger-danger worse, babies respond to much more than just your glowing smile and are actually very adept at nonverbal cues. Eye contact (and expression), tone of voice, and body language are all languages that your baby understands that aren't affected by mask-wearing. Even if you were wearing full personal protective equipment, babies can feel safe and adapt extremely well to these situations.
Believe it or not, this isn't the first (or last) time that infants and children have been in strict social and physical isolation.
In my work at a paediatric hospital on a "medically fragile" unit, infants were often isolated in their rooms and faced lengthy stays in the hospital. As providers, we were always wearing some form of personal protective equipment (gown, mask, gloves, face shield) and, like for the majority of adults in this pandemic, it was to protect the kids from us, not the other way around.
To help deal with this isolation, our response on the unit was to recreate "circle time" in a safe and accessible way so that the infants and their caregivers could have an opportunity for some "normal" socialization. Looking back at those memories now, I still smile when I think about the parents who finally had some interaction outside of doctors and nurses, and the vulnerable babies who finally got to experience some normalcy. The best part? Those kids were resilient and bounced back quickly from their time in isolation, and so will your baby.
Now, the question I ask myself has changed. Knowing how beneficial it can be for the mental health of parents, how can we recreate baby groups and circle time for the babies of 2020 and 2021 who know nothing but their own home? How can we support parents who themselves are struggling with isolation, and are still concerned for their baby's development?
Well, parent class of 2020/2021, I have news for you:
You are ALL your baby needs right now to learn, grow, and meet developmental milestones.
You've got this.
Your baby will grow up to be a highly functioning, independent adult because YOU are the teacher.
Now go back, read that again, then again, and again, then you can move on to the next section.
Development At Home
To make up for the lack of in-person baby groups, here are a few ideas that you can add to your day to help work on communication-, social-, emotional-, cognitive-, and motor development.
Talk to your baby.
Talk to them about EVERYTHING you're doing, narrate your whole day if you have to. Sing songs (no matter how tone deaf you think you are), because baby loves hearing your voice. Typically, I don't encourage screen time for this age group, but there are many nursery song apps with great visuals and simple songs to follow. Read ALL the books, twice, then do it again. According to some research, reading the same book repeatedly (although boring for you) can actually improve brain development. Start with simple, board-style books with lots of contrasting colours and easy-to-turn pages.
Move your bodies.
Go for as many walks as you can with your baby upright to see the world. To help encourage head, neck, and body control, ditch the bassinet strollers in favour of carriers and upright strollers. This brings your baby up to a level to see everything there is to see (when they're not snoozing, that is!).
Have a sensory play party.
Get out the finger paints, make a sensory bag, and have water play days in the bath or by placing water on their high chair tray. You can find loads of simple ideas in a quick Google search.
Get on the floor and play.
I mean REALLY get down and explore the world at their level with them. Not only is this a good place to play, but it also helps babies work on head and neck control during tummy time (and hopefully encourages them to stay there a little longer!)
Use online resources for inspiration.
Visit pathways.org and plug in your baby’s birthday on the Baby Games Calendar or download the Baby Sparks Development app to get age-appropriate ideas for play. Or visit zerotothree.org to explore development at each stage.
Seek safe opportunities for social interaction for you and your baby.
Find a group to meet and walk with outdoors (if isolation restrictions allow, and it's not too cold). Meet virtually or with physical distancing in mind. There are a number of online mom's support groups popping up without travel or nap barriers!
Consider following your local early years center (EarlyON).
They have adapted their programming with outdoor playgroups and walks (when allowed), virtual storytimes, massages, and pre-registered groups.
Remember, you are your baby's favourite person and toy. Babies love your face. They love your voice. They love your touch. They will learn everything that they need to in their first year from you. Putting a pause on social interactions will not put them behind their peers, especially because all of their peers are in the same boat. Their social skills and communication with other children will develop for years to come, so sit back and enjoy this time with your little one!
There may not be any long-term data to prove this but in the end, when I think about it, that baby group was as much for me as it was for my babes. So really, what this comes down to, is how are you taking care of YOU? If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy! There are plenty of opportunities for virtual support groups to help us get through this difficult time, and we're currently looking at ways to bring back our #NewMomStrong group in the coming months, whether virtually or in-person. If this is something you would be interested in, we would LOVE to hear from you!
Until then, stay healthy, keep moving, and take care of yourself with sleep and compassion.
Stephanie Sollazzo is a Registered Physiotherapist, wife, mother, yoga teacher, and self-professed lover of homemade Italian food (especially when her sons make the noodles). She is passionate about helping moms return to activity after pregnancy, and working with children of all ability levels. If you can't find Steph at CONNECT, the only place to look for her is on a beach. To book an appointment with Stephanie, click here