One cold winter evening in 1998, the North American Ice Storm whipped through eastern Ontario and southern Quebec, knocking out power across homes. With no heat, pregnant women were left shivering through ice cold temperatures for as long as 40 days after the storm. Project Ice Storm surveyed 35 boys and 33 girls whose mothers were pregnant during the storm and showed they had larger amygdalas, the part of the brain that influences things like depression, anxiety, and aggression, even up to a decade later.
Prolonged trauma and stress can easily affect infants adversely, and having lived through one of the most devastating pandemics in recent history, it isn’t surprising that new parents worry about the impact the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns may have on their babies.
Spending one’s formative years in lockdown, rarely leaving the house, and having limited social contact can be a very unusual and unsettling experience, but for most babies born in 2020 and 2021, it’s all they have ever known.
Take 2-year-old Max, for instance. Max is very interested in other kids his age, but doesn’t necessarily know how to play or interact with them, says his mom Melinda. When his neighbor Ron, who’s about six months younger than Max, gets too close or is noisy, Max will say, “Ron should go to his house.”
Max, like many other babies born in 2020 or 2021, is what parents are calling a ‘lockdown baby’ or ‘pandemic baby.’ Max isn’t strictly a pandemic baby, but has celebrated his first and second birthdays under lockdown.
Other pandemic babies are displaying a slight wariness towards mixing with strangers, even other kids their age.
Kassie Hanson, a pediatric speech pathologist and blogger, whose daughters are two and a half years old and eight months old, says, “I am realizing that both of my girls may need a little extra coaxing to interact with others, so I’m trying to support them when they see other children. Sometimes my two-year-old shies away from other children, but I prompt her to ask the other person’s name, or at least say “hi.”
Meowing and Barking: Pandemic Babies Are Socialized Differently
If you have chanced across the TikTok hashtag, #pandemicbaby, and seen videos of pandemic babies barking and meowing at people, thinking everything is hand sanitizer, and crying at the sight of strangers, you might worry about your own baby’s social skills and mental development post-lockdown.
But most experts agree that this brief period of isolation is unlikely to have any long term developmental effects. Imitating the behavior they see and acting like animals isn’t unusual for toddlers. But pandemic babies might still require a period of adjustment to get used to meeting strangers and being in crowds.
Mollie Newton, editor of petmetwice.com, who had a baby in June 2020, says, “Having been born during the peak of the pandemic, she [her daughter] had not really left our house in the first few months of her life, barring quick excursions for check-ups at the pediatrician.”
Now that they have become more lenient with family visits and excursions, their daughter is having none of it.
“She absolutely hates populated areas, such as malls. She also hates masks—she is incessantly trying to pull ours off. She has only just started warming up to close family, such as my dad and brother and she still won’t go near my father-in-law. She is exceptionally fond of her brother and dad (and me, given that I’m still her milk-machine) but other than that, she is not a fan of social activity,” she says.
“On the few occasions where we have gone to visit family, she becomes incredibly uneasy and will refuse to eat, sleep, or sit at all. Either my husband or I have to spend our entire time out consoling her.”
The Lockdown Is Unlikely to Have Long Term Effects on Babies
Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a child psychology professor at Ohio State University doesn’t think there is cause for concern and says mental and social development is unlikely to be impacted.
“Although I do not know for sure, I can imagine that babies born during lockdown might exhibit more stranger anxiety (fear of unfamiliar persons) or separation anxiety (fear of separation from parent or primary caregiver) because of a lack of exposure to persons outside their immediate family,” she says.
She also adds, “However, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety are normal during infancy, and I would expect that these would lessen as babies born during the pandemic are exposed to more people. Otherwise, I wouldn’t necessarily expect children’s development to differ that much.”
Experts Say Going Slow is Key
It can be tempting to push babies or toddlers into social situations in an attempt to foster the people skills they appear to be lacking, but experts caution against too much, too soon, and say going slow is the key.
Pediatric speech pathologist Hanson says the most important thing is for parents to seek out opportunities for their children to interact with other adults and peers.
“When children are hesitant to interact (and they very well might be since this has not been the norm in the last year and a half), show them how to talk with others, and that it is safe. You can give them words to say, or help them wave. Small children need social interaction from an early age, and with COVID eliminating so many options, we have to be especially purposeful with getting children socialized now,” she says.
Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan pointed out that video chat could be a useful tool to help children connect with grandparents and other relatives. “Looking at photos together with your child may also be helpful,” she says.
“When easing your baby into a post lockdown world, introduce them slowly to other people and be sure to pay close attention to their signals if they are becoming distressed and need a break. It may also be helpful to talk to relatives about backing off if the child sends signals that they are distressed. It could take a number of in-person visits for the child to feel comfortable with new people, and that is totally normal. Others shouldn’t expect any child to warm up to them right away.”
She also adds, “Home environments can be rich sources of stimulation for infants, and the most important relationships infants form are with those who care for them.”
Babies Are Quick to Adapt
Hanson admits that the possibility of long-lasting effects cannot entirely be ruled out, and says, “There may be increased social anxiety or difficulty forming friendships. I really can’t say, because we don’t have anything in our recent history to compare it to. I am hopeful though, that we can help children born during this unprecedented time if we are purposeful and watchful as they grow up.”
But she also points out how adaptable children are.
“Children are incredibly quick learners and their brains are still so malleable, but we have to be intentional about seeking out social interactions as it becomes an option again. Since I am a mother to a baby born during the pandemic, I will be especially aware of her social skills as she grows.”
“I thought Samuel would suffer too, as I did, but babies are super adaptable. He settled quickly at nursery and now loves it there. We could all learn things from babies!”