Lockdown parenting and baby brain development

Parenting in the pandemic – how to grow your baby’s brain.

In every NCT Early Days class I teach and every conversation with a new family I’m supporting, parents want to know if their baby is getting enough social interaction and varied stimulation for their developing brain.  Parents worry that the same one or two faces and voices and the same few rooms and daily walks may not be good enough.  They feel the loss of baby groups and classes and worry that they are not doing enough at home to compensate.

It is very normal and understandable for parents to worry about providing the “right” environment and stimulation for their baby’s development, and parenting during Covid-19 can really intensify these anxieties.  We know that the experiences and the care a baby receives in the first 1000 days (conception to their 2nd birthday) have a profound impact on their personality, coping strategies and long term health outcomes (more info here and here).  But what exactly do our babies need from us for optimal development?

It turns out that the most important thing they need to see is the face of their primary caregivers and the most important thing they need to hear is the voices of those who love them.   They need consistent kindness and they need to know what love looks, feels and sounds like.  Babies need to feel safe, warm, fed and loved in order for their brains to develop healthily, and that means that it’s more important that their parents are responsive to their physical and emotional needs, than that they have lots of stimulation from fancy toys and activities, and socialisation with other adults and children.

But if parents are feeling lonely, unsupported and just downright exhausted, it becomes harder for them to be responsive to their babies’ needs.  They might make less eye contact, or chat less.  They might even begin to model coping strategies that are less helpful and healthy.  So maybe the impact of lockdown on babies is not about babies being isolated at all, but rather parents.

In August 2020 Best Beginnings and Home Start collaborated to publish the Babies in Lockdown report.  Based on surveys of 5000 parents taken in the spring of 2020 when the lockdown was at its most rigorous, it presented a very mixed picture.  While some families were suffering greatly from fear of infection, the withdrawal of services and activities and isolation from loved ones and sources of support, others were enjoying the slower pace of life, the reduced pressure to present their family in a certain way and the increased time to spend at home, especially where partners were working from home or furloughed.  The report did highlight a widening inequality, with families already at risk of pooer outcomes showing a higher level of stress and suffering, and it made several excellent and pressing recommendations about how this could be addressed.  But it also showed that many parents recognised the fact that physical distance doesn’t have to mean emotional distance.

We are so used, in pre-covid times, to (rightly) trying to limit our screen time, that some have underestimated the value of connecting with family and community members over video call or messaging apps.  Of course, it’s not the same as face to face interactions, but from your baby’s point of view, if you feel connected and supported, if only remotely, you are more likely to be smiley, calm and chatty with your child.  That alone can have profound implications for how your day goes, quite apart from the impact on your baby’s developing brain.  If you can talk through your anxieties and experiences with other parents, you are less likely to be distracted and worried when interacting with your baby.  If you can swap tips on things to do to fill the time and keep yourself and your baby entertained, you are less likely to feel bored and lethargic when the long lockdown days stretch ahead.

Of course, no-one can ever be calm and happy all the time, and nor should you try to be.  Babies need to witness and experience the whole range of human emotion to learn about how difficult feelings and conflicts can be managed in healthy, loving ways.  In fact, there is evidence suggesting that we only need to be fully responsive more often than not to support our babies healthy development, so it’s perfectly ok to have times when parenting in the pandemic is just really hard and your baby has to accept less of you.

Those of us who work with new families have long known that the value of baby groups is always less in the babies interacting with each other and much MUCH more in the parents interacting, supporting, learning through observation and forming communities of peer supporting friendship groups.  Whether it’s baby sensory, baby massage or a drop-in breastfeeding group with toys for the babies, the connections between the parents are the important outcome, much more so than what the babies are learning, because happy, connected, supported parents raise happy, secure, developmentally healthy children, regardless of lockdown limitations on socialisation and play spaces.

That’s why our Zoom NCT Friday group, our NCT and other What’s App groups and our Facebook communities are so valuable.  They are a proxy for the shy smile over a cup of tea, the rush to pick up and pass the dropped muslin, the empathetic hand on the sobbing shoulder.  Nothing replaces human connection, actual physical help with looking after babies, and hugs, but we are still forming strong support groups which empower parents to support their babies to build healthy happy brains.  And no global pandemic will get in our way.

What support have you found helpful through the pandemic?  What do you need more of?

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