UK's COVID Lockdown Babies Experiencing 'Ongoing' Negative Impacts: Report

UK's COVID Lockdown Babies Experiencing 'Ongoing' Negative Impacts: Report
Playground equipment is taped off to prevent use during the COVID-19 pandemic at Brambles Primary Academy in Huddersfield, northern England, on June 4, 2020. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
Lily Zhou

The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns on babies' language and social skills are still "ongoing," according to a report published on Wednesday.

The report (pdf), published by the Institute of Health Visiting and charity alliance First 1001 Days Movement, includes a review of relevant reports, research, and national data, and the results of a new UK-wide survey taken between July and early September of 555 professionals and volunteers who work with babies and their families.

According to the report, most of the professionals said the most significant ongoing impact of the pandemic on children is on their speech, language, and socialisation.

Almost all (94.8 percent) of the survey respondents said the pandemic had an "ongoing negative or very negative impact" on the personal and social skills of babies who were living during the lockdown.

Regarding communication, speech and language skills, and emotional wellbeing and development, 92.4 percent said babies and toddlers were experiencing ongoing negative or very negative impacts.

A respondent working in a health visiting service in Scotland said a "total lack of socialisation has impacted speech and language" of children who were born around the first lockdown in early 2020.

"Children about to enter school may be showing signs of ASD [Autism spectrum disorder] but in Scotland, these children may only have had telephone contacts,” the respondent wrote.

Another health visiting service worker in England said children they worked with have poor speech and language skills and personal skills with some families having "got into the habit of lockdown and not mixing socially."

Other respondents also reported "noticeable difficulties with socialising, challenging behaviours," and an increased number of children displaying symptoms of Autism in young children.

 Safety guideline notices are seen at a reopened playground at St Mary's Field in Wallington, England, on July 4, 2020. (Mark Trowbridge/Getty Images)
Safety guideline notices are seen at a reopened playground at St Mary's Field in Wallington, England, on July 4, 2020. (Mark Trowbridge/Getty Images)

The lockdowns also had ongoing negative impacts on other areas of young children's development, according to the survey.

Almost six in 10 (59.6) said there were ongoing negative or very negative impacts on babies' and toddlers' physical health and 71.9 said the same about their physical development and motor skills.

The report also cited official data published by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities on Nov. 1 that showed a decline in the development of young children in the year 2021–2022.

In all five areas of development, including communication skills, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, and personal-social skills, a smaller percentage of children in England who received a 2–2.5-year-old check were at or above the expected level of development compared to the previous year.

Asked about the proportion of babies they worked with who were still affected by parental anxiety or depression in terms of bonding and responsive care, 7.2 percent of the respondents said all babies they worked with were affected, 42.7 percent said many were affected (compared to 73 percent in summer 2020), and 42.2 said some were affected.

A majority of the respondents also said babies were more likely to be exposed to domestic conflict, child abuse, or neglect.

 Shops remain closed in Camden, London, on June 28, 2020. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Shops remain closed in Camden, London, on June 28, 2020. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The report also said both parents and young children often have smaller social networks following the pandemic and the lockdowns, with 45 percent of the professionals saying family self-isolation was still affecting “many” of the babies they worked with.

"Shockingly, this figure is similar to that reported in 2020 despite changes in the prevalence and risk of the virus and national restrictions," the report said.

Nearly half (49.4 percent) of the survey respondents said many babies they work with were still impacted by more sedentary behaviour and less stimulation and play.

The survey also suggested more babies and their families are living in poverty and that inequalities in outcomes have widened since the pandemic.

The way services are delivered has also changed during the pandemic, with more services running "hybrid" operations, according to the survey, which included respondents from a range of services including health visiting, children's centres, breastfeeding support, parent-infant and children's mental health, and speech and language therapy.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the respondents said their services were not back to "normal," and 39.2 percent of them said they did not believe it would go back to "normal."

There are some benefits to changing the operational methods including accessibility, flexibility, and choice, but almost six in 59.5 percent of those who said their service was operating differently said the changes were not beneficial for families, the survey showed.

The report also said most (90.5) of the respondents from England said they felt national or local governments didn't do enough to support the need of babies and their families, and called on the governments to "recognise the full impact of the pandemic on babies and young children," mitigate the harm, increase spending on the youngest children, and improve services.

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