CASTLE POINT, Missouri – Lucretia Wilks, who runs a small daycare from her home in northern St. Louis County, is used to watching young children hug, hold hands, and play together in confined spaces.
But the Covid-19 pandemic made such normal behavior in young children potentially unsafe.
“It’s strange that they are now living in a time when they are expected not to hug and touch,” said Wilks, founder of Their Future’s Bright Child Development Center, which employs a dozen or so children Taking care of infants up to 7 years of age. “They make bonds, make friends, and thus show their affection.”
Daycare and other childcare providers said they were relieved that Covid cases are falling as vaccines roll out in the United States. But even as the country reopens, mental health and child development experts are wondering what, if any, long-term mental health and development impacts young children face.
In the short term, medical and child development experts said the pandemic had even damaged the mental health of young children, causing them to miss important parts of typical social and emotional development. In addition to being unable to get as close to other people as usual, many young children have disrupted their routines or experienced family stress when their parents lost their jobs or fell ill. The pandemic and its economic consequences have also forced many families to change care regulations.
“Coronavirus has a number of psychological effects on children and families. The biggest and most obvious path is in the structure and routine of the children, ”said Dr. Mini Tandon, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Young children thrive in structure and routine. So if that bothers you, everyday things go wrong pretty quickly. “
Tandon, who has spoken frequently to parents and caregivers since the pandemic began, said she and her peers had experienced more anxiety and high levels of stress in young children than in the past.
Child behavior experts last year in a webinar by the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness highlighted a number of issues made worse by the pandemic, including separation anxiety and attachment, sleep problems, and challenges with learning new information. Children have also shown regressive behaviors – for example, bed-wetting even though they have been potty trained.
Changes in the care situation can be a major source of stress for young children. And the financial burden of the pandemic has forced many families to rethink caring for their youngest children.
For example, according to Procare Solutions, which works with over 30,000 childcare programs, the average monthly childcare cost in Missouri is $ 584 for 4-year-olds and $ 837 for toddlers. That was too high for some parents who lost their jobs in the pandemic. President Joe Biden’s Covid Relief Plan, signed in March, calls for monthly payments of up to $ 300 per child this year, and his latest proposal would help cut childcare costs and improve preschool access if approved.
But in the many months when day care was inaccessible, some parents had to adjust their working hours to look after infants or toddlers while helping school-age children with virtual learning. Others have relied on grandparents for help, although this option was potentially dangerous before vaccines were available. Keeping children apart from grandparents is difficult for children and seniors.
Even if parents could afford day care, the fear of getting or spreading Covid influenced their decision whether and when to send it. And some facilities have temporarily closed during the pandemic.
Aimee Witzl, 34, of St. Louis, an accountant and new mom, said she and her husband were reluctant to send their daughter Riley Witzl to a daycare center at the start of the pandemic. Riley was born prematurely in November 2019 and spent nine weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home. So the couple waited until August to send her to daycare part-time, then until January to send her full-time.
“We were already risky,” said Witzl. “Then Covid happened, so we kept her at home longer than planned.”
Fortunately, no one in her family got the virus, she said.
In March 2020, the Early Childhood Development Action Network, a global association of agencies and institutions that promote the health and safety of children, released a “call to action” shared by the World Health Organization saying they were concerned about the pandemic That “kids great” risks failing to reach their full potential “as the early years are a” critical window of rapid brain development that lays the foundation for health, wellbeing and productivity for a lifetime “.
Washington University psychiatrist Tandon said she was particularly concerned about young children who may have been isolated in unsafe homes where they were mistreated. Abuse is more likely to go unnoticed when children are out of daycare and schools where adults are required to report child abuse and neglect.
However, Tandon said the stress from the pandemic can affect every child’s mental health, which motivated her to write a children’s book about a girl who struggled with anxiety during the pandemic.
Now, even though Covid vaccinations are still months away for the youngest children, a shift is taking place that could cause a new round of disruption for them. Nancy Rotter, a child psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard University, said that young children may experience separation anxiety if they fully return to their schools and daycare after being at home with their parents.
To help children heal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage families to ensure that children keep in touch with relatives and friends. The agency also advises parents to do their best to identify and manage anxiety and stress in themselves and their children, and to seek professional help if necessary. CDC experts suggest that parents talk about emotions and allow children to express their fears in a safe place.
However, when children and toddlers return to a new normal, it may not be as alien to them as it is to adults. Although the pandemic has caused stress, children can be very resilient, Rotter said.
“Supportive caregivers and supportive emotional environments help with resilience in the child,” she said. “Resilience is not just what the child carries within, but what is in the child’s environment. It is the home, the religious community, the school and the daycare environment that support the child’s development and how they deal with change. “
And the pandemic can leave an advantage for children: the emphasis on hand washing. Childcare experts said good hygiene habits are an important life lesson that is likely to last beyond this health crisis.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.
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