‘My son cowers when a shopkeeper says hello’ – are the toddlers of Covid all right?
Until the spring of 2020, Rebecca Handford’s then two-year-old daughter Eadie was happily spending three days a week being looked after by her grandparents, enjoying trips out, and going to cafes.
But then came the first lockdown, and her world closed in overnight. The family, who live in a small village on the border between Cheshire and Derbyshire, felt lucky to have a garden for Eadie to play in – although, as Handford ruefully puts it, while she was trying to work from home “Mr Tumble did a lot of the heavy lifting”.
Eadie is an only child, and her language came on in leaps and bounds due to spending so much time with her parents. But Handford worries that she missed out on learning to socialise. “If there’s a little gang of toddlers running around, she very much doesn’t want to take part. Even if we go to the park, if there’s another child on the slide she will go and play somewhere else until it’s free.”
Eadie has grown more confident since starting preschool, but still prefers the company of adults. Like many parents, Handford and her husband wonder if this is temporary or whether the pandemic has in some ways shaped the person Eadie will grow up to be.
Something similar is true for Emily Knight and her husband. They spent the first lockdown at home in Grantham, Lincolnshire, working from home while juggling a baby and a two-year-old between them. When restrictions lifted last summer, Knight, who works for an MP, discovered that after so long without seeing other people, her children found being in a busy supermarket overwhelming. “My youngest screams at the notion of going near a swimming pool. Stuff that you build up with very small children to get them used to it – they haven’t had that,” she says. “They haven’t really interacted with people who aren’t in their immediate family. I now have a four-year-old who cowers in fear when a shopkeeper says hello to him.”
While many parents were initially concerned that Covid precautions such as constant hand-washing might have a psychological impact on children, Knight says these didn’t worry her children. “They’re always saying, ‘Don’t forget your mask, Mummy’ – that’s normal for them. And everywhere we go, they just hold their hands out to get some gel.” It’s returning to what adults consider normality that seems confusing for children who have grown up in the shadow of a pandemic.
For many under fives, life before masks and hand sanitiser is but a faint memory. Babies born in lockdown, to mothers forced to go into labour alone while their partners waited helplessly in hospital car parks, will now be approaching their second birthdays. And while the last two summers have spelled a return to something like normality for these children, the winters have brought brutal setbacks. It’s perhaps only now, as restrictions lift again, that researchers are beginning to understand what this disorienting start in life may have meant for them.
According to a YouGov survey [PDF] after last spring’s lockdown, British parents worry much less about small children catching the virus than about the impact of the pandemic on their development; a quarter thought it would set their language back, while half had concerns about emotional and social skills – things such as learning to share, take turns and make friends. Other fears pertain to how growing up in a climate of constant anxiety has affected their children’s mental health, or whether they’ll be behind when they start school.
After the first Covid wave in 2020 – which saw nurseries closed to all but key workers’ and vulnerable children for up to six months – the Education Endowment Foundation, a social mobility charity, asked schools about the children who were starting reception that autumn. Three-quarters of the schools surveyed [PDF] reported that new starters were behind in speech, writing and number skills, as well as the ability to focus and behave in class.
The big question, however, is whether “Covid babies” are young enough to shake off their strange early experiences, or whether their generation will in some sense be defined by it.
On a chilly, clear winter’s day, a huddle of preschoolers bundled up in coats and bobble hats dig excitedly in the mud. Around them, toddlers zoom up and down on trikes. Since the pandemic began, staff at Old Station nursery in the Oxfordshire market town of Faringdon have encouraged them to play outside as much as possible. But that’s not the only way in which life has had to change.
The nursery stayed open for all but the first 12 weeks of the pandemic, reopening in June 2020 stripped of any cushions, rugs and soft furnishings thought likely to harbour the virus. Even the sandpit was banned, although it has since made a comeback amid greater understanding of the way Covid spreads. One of the staff wrote a storybook, explaining what the children’s favourite character, Maisie Mouse, has to do to keep the “big bug” away. (They have been honest about the virus from the start, knowing the children would have heard their parents talking about it.) The children also played a game of smearing paint on their hands, pretending it was a bug, and noticing how it ended up on everything they touched.
For staff, that initial reopening at a time when there was still no vaccine against Covid-19 was terrifying. “Everyone was saying: ‘Keep your distance.’ But how can you do that with a baby?” recalls the nursery’s warm and reassuring manager, Stephanie Dorling. But what mattered, she decided at the time, was trying to compensate for what the children had lost during lockdown.
“We felt we had to fill that void. So we did the most crazy summer of events and themed weeks. We just got everybody involved, did lots of fancy dress, had barbecues, gave them the experiences they might not have been having at home. We thought, ‘If this is the only place they’re going, we’d better pack in lots of really exciting things.’ Nonetheless, she noticed significant changes in some children after three months at home.
We had children talking in American accents because they’d been watching so much YouTube
“Emotional detachment has been really hard – things like finding it difficult to leave parents. Some have been a little quieter, more withdrawn. There’s a lot more anxiety in the three- and four-year-olds; you can see that they worry about things.” Some of the youngest had barely seen another baby, and found a room full of them overwhelming. And then there was an unexpected side-effect of the extra screen time most children will have experienced. “We had children talking in American accents, because they’d been watching so much YouTube,” Dorling says.
A year and half on from reopening, Dorling thinks most of her charges have either caught up or are held back chiefly by shyness. “If they engage in an activity, they’re perfectly able, it’s just their confidence,” she says. “Children have more resilience than we think.” Nonetheless, she is conscious that they aren’t out of the woods yet.
When I visit in December 2021, the Omicron variant is only just hitting the headlines in England, but Dorling is braced for what she suspects is coming. Nurseries have been on the frontline of the pandemic, enabling other key worker parents to do their jobs as well as overseeing the early education of children too young to learn by Zoom. But that comes at a price. By the end of November, Covid-19 rates in early-years settings in England had already passed their previous peak. Unlike older children, under-fives are not eligible for vaccination.
“There’s been no letup in the early years; it’s constant – the same pressure the whole way through,” Dorling says. “When I look at the team, I can see they’re exhausted. You just think, ‘One more thing is going to break the camel’s back’.” She finds it strange that while the early years are widely deemed critical to life chances – children learn faster between birth and age five than at any other stage of life – there is little public discussion of how the pandemic is shaping a generation born into it.
If Covid has had a genuinely lasting impact on children’s development, then the Babylab project based at Oxford Brookes University should be among the first to know. Ordinarily, this collaboration between academics at five English universities recruits families of preschoolers to study aspects of development, from the benefits of napping to growing up bilingual. When the pandemic hit, they were instantly curious about the impact of what would presumably be a relatively brief interlude in toddlers’ lives. More than 18 months on, they are still tracking the effect of social distancing on what was originally a cohort of 600 under-threes, via games that parents are asked to play to assess their children’s skills.
Toddlers attending nursery at least two days a week in lockdown could learn 48 more words than those at home
Its early work confirmed the first lockdown may well have had an impact on children learning to talk. Toddlers still attending nursery at least two days a week in lockdown – because their parents were key workers, for example – could be expected to learn on average 48 more new words than those stuck at home, with children from the poorest backgrounds hardest hit. Those attending five days a week could increase executive function scores – tests of skills such as concentrating, or controlling their emotions – by nearly twice as much as others.
The next wave of research, exploring how the same children have fared since nurseries reopened, is still being conducted and results are not expected until spring. But Babylab’s Dr Alexandra Hendry, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Oxford and a mother of two school-age children herself, is optimistic.
“That’s what everyone is interested in – do we see recovery and resilience, which is what I’m hoping for and what I’m expecting, to be honest,” she says over Zoom from her home office. “I’m really on board with the message that the first three years really, really matter. But parents can hear from that, ‘If you don’t get there early, it’s too late’, and that’s not true. There’s not a door that shuts. It’s never too late to expose your child to the kind of enriching experiences they get from early years childcare settings.”
That chimes with December 2021’s annual report from Ofsted, noting that while almost half of early years providers in England thought children had fallen behind on skills such as sharing toys or following a routine, they noted improvements by autumn. Some preschoolers even mastered new skills during lockdown, or returned happier for having spent more time with their parents.
The good news for parents of shy toddlers, Hendry says, is that the human drive to be social is “one of the most robust and recoverable” instincts small children have. Nor should parents who struggled to work from home in lockdown beat themselves up about the amount of Paw Patrol their toddlers may have watched. “We demonise screen time because that’s a simple story, but it’s more complex than that,” she says, “there are benefits and there are disadvantages. No parent I’ve spoken to, myself included, parented in a way that was their optimal style during lockdown. We’re all having to make compromises.”
What about parents worried that younger children missed out on early educational activities, such as baby music classes? While babies should have been able to get the social interaction they needed within the family, she argues, it’s frazzled parents for whom such classes can be a lifeline. “I took my kids to baby pilates because I was bored and tired and lonely. In a way, we need to be directing our attention towards parents, because that’s where the negative effects might get passed on to a child, if the parent is struggling.”
Her team found that, where parents were coping well, some families actively thrived on more time together. “We’d hear, ‘My child’s language has flourished’ or ‘It’s been brilliant because her dad’s been home all the time, and I’m on maternity leave and I was lonely before.’” (Two-thirds of fathers in two-parent households in the UK reported better relationships with their children as a result of being home more during lockdown, a recent survey by the campaign group the Fatherhood Institute found.) But the risk, Hendry says, is of existing inequalities deepening as lockdown widens the gap between families where the parents are coping well, and those in far more difficult circumstances. The story of what happened to children in the pandemic is, in some ways, really the story of what happened to their parents.
For Leah, giving birth in a pandemic was never going to be easy. Registered blind and disabled, Leah (who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) had previously struggled with their mental health and was supported by specialist mental heath midwives during their second pregnancy, but found raising a baby in lockdown tough. Their eight-year-old daughter is, Leah says, “incredibly outgoing”, but at 18 months, her little brother is clingy and anxious. “If I leave the room, there’s hysteria. With her, we were out and about every day doing something, even if it was just meeting up with another baby or going for a walk around the supermarket. Family and friends were in and out constantly. Whereas he first met my brother when he was eight months old.”
Phone calls are all well and good, but you miss out on the body language. How many kids will slip through the net?
Even when the mother and baby group at their local community centre reopened after the first lockdown, numbers were strictly limited and attendance had to be pre-booked. It was hard to find help when the baby had trouble feeding, too. “Our local breastfeeding group did a lot of Zooms, but when people are saying ‘Watch this video’ – I can’t see that.” Leah’s health visitor has been “amazing”, but they worry about the impact on other families of not seeing professionals face to face. “Phone calls are all well and good, but you miss out on the body language. How many kids will slip through the net? I had to take him to A&E with croup, and there were a number of kids that you could hear there were safeguarding concerns around: parents being interrogated about how their kids got marks on them.”
Amid fears of a spike in postnatal depression among lonely new parents, restrictions were eased after the first lockdown, allowing families to form “childcare bubbles” for extra support. Under-fives were also excluded from the “rule of six” limit on socialising last winter. But giving birth in a pandemic has still been an acutely lonely experience for many new parents, deprived of help from grandparents and struggling to make friends while playgroups were closed. Many have also struggled to see GPs or health visitors in person, according to a UK-wide survey of professionals working with children published last autumn by the Parent-Infant Foundation. A third said weekly drop‑in clinics had shut down permanently during lockdown, while more than a quarter said local health visitors were still only available over the phone or online. The report’s co-author, Sally Hogg, says paediatricians she interviewed have expressed concerns not just about potentially serious conditions being missed, but also cases “where there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the baby, and the mum should just have been able to go to a mums’ group and say, ‘Does your child throw up after feeds or never sleep?’ They’ve no sounding board, and eventually they get so worried they end up in A&E.”
The recent deaths of 16-month-old Star Hobson in Bradford and six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in Solihull also tragically illustrate the risks of vulnerable children falling under the radar during lockdown. There has been a 31% rise in so-called serious incident notifications (where abuse or neglect is suspected) for babies in their first year, and while social services tried to prioritise high-risk families during lockdown, Hogg points out that not all risks are known. She says: “If this is your first baby, how does anyone know your kids are OK if they’ve not been seen since they were discharged from hospital?” Meanwhile, take-up of free nursery places for two-year-olds – offered to families in deprived neighbourhoods, to help narrow the gap between rich and poor children’s life chances – has fallen sharply since early 2020, reflecting what Hogg fears may be a broader disengagement with children’s services in some communities.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, promised £300m in last autumn’s budget for early years projects championed by Andrea Leadsom, the former business secretary who chaired a recent review of early years [PDF] for the government; these include so-called family hubs providing one-stop support for vulnerable families in England. The Department for Education has also launched a £153m early years recovery programme, including specialist speech and language therapy for reception pupils, and has prioritised keeping nurseries as well as schools open during subsequent lockdowns. But many in the early years sector argue it isn’t enough to meet the ongoing need.
Calls to Parent Talk, the helpline run by the charity Action for Children, have increased fourfold during the pandemic. In a UK-wide survey it ran last autumn, half of parents reported feelings of anxiety, and a third felt isolated or depressed, with parents of preschoolers harder hit than parents of older children. “We’re getting a lot of mental health concerns, physical exhaustion, lack of support, feelings of isolation. It often comes up as ‘I can’t cope’ or ‘I don’t know what else I can do’,” says Jo Thurston, service coordinator for Parent Talk. “The stress of parenting in an uncertain environment is really taking a toll.”
She says common problems raised during lockdown include separation anxiety, difficult behaviour at home, and being slow to meet developmental milestones such as learning to talk. A post-lockdown surge of referrals for services such as speech therapy has meant delays as they work through the backlog. And every time the NHS frantically reshuffles its resources to face a fresh wave of Covid, families of sick or disabled children fear disruption to existing treatment.
Three-year-old Sam was born with a rare condition known as Pallister-Killian syndrome; he is partially blind, needs hearing aids and suffers from hypotonia, a muscle weakness that means he can’t move himself independently or talk. Before Covid, he was having three physiotherapy sessions a week to keep him mobile. But then his NHS physiotherapist was diverted on to a Covid ward, and a charity-funded scheme that was also helping the family shut down, something they fear may have actively shortened his life.
The thing that eats away at you with kids with special needs is you might not be able to make up for lost healthcare
“The thing that eats away at you with kids with special needs is that you might not be able to make it up,” says Sam’s father, Matt, a civil servant. “Mobility translates into lifespan – if you don’t move around, you don’t develop healthy organs. I’m saying this distancing myself from it, so I don’t cry, but we will never know the opportunity lost. Could he have had more time? What opportunities were missed for his development? The less a kid like him moves, the shorter his life will be.”
The end of lockdown, meanwhile, brought some difficult choices for the family as they weighed the benefits to their two older daughters of going out and seeing friends against the risk of bringing the virus home to Sam, who is highly clinically vulnerable. “We made a decision that we would take precautions, but we couldn’t isolate, because we just couldn’t survive,” Matt says.
Matt stresses that the family don’t blame the NHS. “Sam’s physio was on a Covid ward, massaging people’s lungs to keep them alive – there’s no way we wouldn’t have wanted that to happen.” Thankfully, Sam now attends a special needs school that offers the therapy he needs. But for many parents of disabled children who have got this far running on adrenaline, Matt thinks the strain is beginning to tell. “I’m smoking my head off as we speak,” he says.
For families who have experienced difficult lockdowns, the constant threat of further restrictions has been particularly frightening. Anna Waterman’s daughter Megan turned five just before the UK’s March 2020 lockdown and was, her mother says, “a very happy, cheeky little girl. She never had any issues with social interaction, no anxiety at all.” The first lockdown passed off uneventfully, says Waterman, who runs a travel business and lives in London. But the second, in England in January 2021, was very different. Full days of Zoom lessons left Megan feeling overwhelmed and panicky. “At that age, you can’t teach phonics online. She was really starting to hate the screen time. Thirty kids on a Zoom – it was noisy, she didn’t want to say anything, she didn’t want the camera on.”
The school reopened that spring, but repeated Covid outbreaks meant the children kept being sent home to isolate, and Megan struggled with the uncertainty. “You couldn’t go to the library and choose a book because the library was shut. You couldn’t play with a different child because they were in a different bubble. Every time you wanted to do something, it was ‘no’. One day she came home from school and said, ‘Mummy, thousands of children have died, did you know that?’” In July, she began refusing to eat food that needed chewing. “She was utterly convinced that it would get stuck in her throat and she would choke and die. She ate less and less, until she was just eating nothing. I thought, ‘I need help, I don’t know what to do.’”
But the family GP wasn’t seeing patients face to face, and it took days to get a phone appointment. Although Megan was then referred to child and adolescent mental health services, Waterman says she was told in August 2021 that nobody could see her until January. “If she’d fallen out of a tree and broken her arm, she would be in A&E and in plaster within eight hours. But they were saying there was nobody available. All they could say was: ‘Keep weighing her, and when it gets really bad, go to A&E.’”
After Megan started saying that she was scared to even drink water, the family turned to a private therapist. But, as her mother points out, for many families that isn’t an option. “I rang every helpline and charity on offer. Even the private services are completely stacked. It shocked me. I’d believed what the leaders of our country say – that these services exist. I felt like saying to them: ‘You try getting help.’”
Megan returned to school in autumn 2021, and has been doing well, although she remains anxious about the virus. “She asks me: ‘Has Covid gone away?’ “We try to explain that it hasn’t, but it will become like flu – something that we live with. But it’s hard to understand at that age,” Waterman says. For some young children, the most difficult legacy of Covid may be an emotional one, accepting that life can be unpredictable and that there are questions even grownups can’t answer.
Stuck to the wall behind Beccy Smith’s head when she joins me on Zoom is a child’s drawing of an orange robot. It’s the work of her six-year-old son Jasper, who is now in his third year of interrupted schooling. His experience growing up in a pandemic inspired his mother – who runs the Brighton-based Touched theatre company – to produce a puppet theatre show aimed at helping other families make sense of it. The Gift, originally planned for Christmas 2020, opened in front of a painstakingly socially distanced audience of two- to four-year-olds at Manchester’s Z-Arts theatre last December.
While it doesn’t overtly mention Covid, her show tells the story of a lonely astronaut, isolated in space. He is watched over by a kindly star who appears throughout on a screen, representing loved ones children may have only been able to see via FaceTime. The star sends the astronaut a robot to keep him company. Even children too young to articulate their feelings about Covid should be able to recognise the emotions in the play, Smith says. “A lot of them have fears and worries about the virus, and we didn’t want to make a show about fear and worry. We wanted to make a show that reminded children how much they are loved, even when the people who love them are far away.” Giving children chances to process their feelings through games and songs and stories is, she argues, a way of helping them move on. “Cultural experiences can be very healing, and can be part of the way we find out of this.”
Related: The fears of five-year-olds: how young children cope with Covid anxiety
They may be just as important for their parents, some of whom will be feeling guilt or grief for the childhoods their children didn’t get to have, or are watching anxiously for signs of long-term damage. While many young children are likely to bounce back unscathed, there is growing evidence that the pandemic has deepened inequalities between vulnerable and more fortunate families, and that recovery from it is likely to strain services from daycare to mental health for years to come.
When her daughter was ill, Waterman says, she simply lived from mealtime to mealtime. It was only when Megan began to recover that she and her husband finally began to absorb what had happened, leaving her with a fierce desire to let other families who struggled in lockdown know they’re not alone.
“As a parent of young children, you feel like you’re the only one who’s losing it. Now, when I talk to other parents and tell them what we went through, you see that flicker of relief if they had a horrendous experience, too – relief that it’s not something they’ve done as a parent, it’s a result of this situation that no one could have foreseen,” she tells me. “You look back and think, ‘Oh my God, what have we just been through?’”
• Some names have been changed.