Some young children have never experienced life without Covid-19. Writing for Vox, Anna North details the toll the pandemic has taken on America's youngest children—and explains how to help them bounce back.
The pandemic's impact on young children
During the first five years of development, children's rapidly changing brains are easily influenced by new experiences in their environment. And for the past two and a half years, many young children have missed out on countless experiences.
During the pandemic, "toddlers and preschoolers have gone through crucial years of early social and emotional development at a time of trauma and isolation for many Americans," North writes.
America's youngest children have only ever known life during a global pandemic. These children "spent some of their earliest months on lockdown, often interacting only with family and missing out on small but real learning experiences like playing in a sandbox or going to the grocery store," North adds. "Many of their caregivers went through extreme stress as well, which can affect children even before they're born."
Currently, psychologists, educators, and other experts are still trying to understand all the ways "the biggest public health crisis in a generation" has impacted the development of young children.
Rawshan Khanam, a teacher at the Child Center of New York's Corona Head Start program, said she is frequently reminded of everything her students have missed out on during the pandemic whenever she asks them about once-common childhood experiences. "Have you ever been to a museum? No. Have you ever been to a beach? No. Have you ever been to a library? No," she said. "It's so much 'no' in their lives."
In one study, researchers found that babies born during the pandemic were lagging behind pre-pandemic measures of motor and social development.
According to Khanam, parents and teachers have also voiced concerns about young children's language development after enduring long periods of isolation and mask-wearing. "Their speech is so delayed," Khanam noted.
Notably, the youngest children "may have begun feeling the effects of the pandemic before they were even born," North writes. When the pandemic began, researchers at Columbia University started studying the impact of maternal Covid-19 infection on babies. Fortunately, they found no developmental differences between babies whose moms had been infected with the virus during pregnancy and babies whose moms had not.
The researchers also compared all the babies in their sample with babies born before the pandemic. They found that babies born during the pandemic—whether they had been exposed to Covid-19 in utero or not—scored slightly lower than pre-pandemic children on measures of gross motor, fine motor, and personal and social skills.
Upon closer examination, the researchers found the most significant effect among babies whose mothers were in their first trimester at the start of the pandemic—a finding they believed may have resulted from prenatal exposure to maternal stress.
"I have a 2-year-old who was born during peak pandemic," said Lauren Shuffrey, an associate research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center who worked on the research. "It was a very stressful time for mothers."
How to help children bounce back
While children have missed a lot during the pandemic, many experts agree that young children's developing brains are able to easily bounce back and adapt to new realities—even in difficult times.
"Children are really resilient, and anything that they're experiencing during this pandemic probably prepares them well for future stressors," said Moriah Thomason, a human developmental neuroscientist at New York University.
In fact, "[t]oday's youngest children could actually emerge from this pandemic better equipped for what the next few years hold than adults who were already set in their ways when lockdown began," North writes.
To help children heal and learn the lessons they missed out on during the pandemic, children need support and assistance, including counseling, speech therapy, and other supports that may be in short supply as school systems and city governments try to navigate the effects of the pandemic.
"They're resilient, they're survivors, but they need services," Khanam said.
Fortunately, many of the losses young children and their families experienced during the pandemic can be repaired. "For one thing," North writes, "even though the effects of stress can begin in the womb, adaptation can start there too."
While the pandemic has been difficult, Thomason believes it is important not to assume the last two and a half years have been completely negative for children.
"My strategy as a scientist, researcher, and mother has been to allow discussion of positives to come into the conversation," Thomason explained. "There's a degree to which, as a society, we are responsible for writing self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of what we take away from our experiences."
"Where research does point to problems as a result of the pandemic, there's no reason to assume they will be lifelong," North writes.
"It's not as though a screening tool at six months is predictive of one's future," Shuffrey said. "Kids are so resilient that I have no doubt that these kids are going to be okay. But it's still important to continue to monitor and provide support, if and when needed."
Educators and researchers have voiced a shared message: "Now is not the time for defeatism over what young kids have lost in the pandemic, but for action," North writes. (North, Vox, 6/7)