When my children were babies, they went to regular music classes taught by my brother, frequented playgroups at our nearby community centre, and even went to postnatal yoga with me. They were stimulated and socialized and went regularly for check-ups with our family doctor. This access to in person programs and group play is not possible for parents with babies today. Talking to other parents, I became curious about how we can help children meet their developmental milestones while sheltering at home and while people outside of their families wear masks.
While in-person programs and community drop-in centres are currently closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, young children are missing the social interaction and stimulation of being with others. Parents and caregivers are often overworked, tired, and anxious. There are free resources that can help. In Ontario, EarlyON Child and Family Centres offer free virtual programs and telephone services for children from birth through age six and their caregivers. These programs help strengthen and support connected relationships between children and their caregiver and also foster healthy childhood development. SickKids has a comprehensive website aboutkidshealth.ca with free mental and physical health education with multilingual content for children, youth and their caregivers.
The good news is that during the COVID-19 pandemic, children who have loving connected relationships with their parent(s) or primary caregiver, are likely to achieve expected developmental milestones, but we might need to be more flexible about timelines.(1) For essential workers and others that need to quarantine and/or be physically separated from their children because of illness or work, keeping the connection strong and remembering that isolating will be a temporary situation is essential.(2) Visualizing the future, is a key component of developing resilience.”(3)
While parents in every social and economic demographic might be feeling anxious, challenges are amplified for those caring for children with disabilities or who are living with disabilities themselves and also for those households already living in stressful conditions.(4) When parents stay calm, they model this behaviour and their child is likely to take their cue from the adults around them to stay calm themselves.(5) This is challenging at the best of times, and is even harder for single parents, people with disabilities, parents with addictions or with depression, people who live in poverty, and for people who live in abusive households.
Parenting and family components are key elements for determining how severely the global pandemic impacts children’s short and long-term development. In early childhood, the brain is developing rapidly and is also affected by environmental factors. Worsening economic circumstances further deteriorates immediate health, nutrition, care and education and might be exacerbated long term by the probable economic downturn lasting after the time of the pandemic.(6)
It is important for children of all ages to have regular check-ups with their family doctor or pediatrician and to keep up to date with vaccinations, though many parents are afraid to bring their children in person for appointments. Immunization clinics that were originally scheduled to take place after March Break at TDSB schools in the 2019-2020 school year, were cancelled due to schools closing as part of Toronto’s COVID-19 response. The Toronto.ca website states, “All school immunization clinics are suspended for the 2020-2021 school year.” Toronto Public Health is offering free community clinics for students to receive their vaccinations by appointment only at www.tphbookings.ca. (7)
With masks covering facial expressions, it can be more difficult to read facial cues. According to Dr. Dori Skye Engel, ND, it is important to see different faces, even through windows or on FaceTime and Zoom. Playing expressive face games including making silly faces can be helpful. Outside time is important for exercise, fresh air and to see other people at a safe distance. While everyone is exposed to frightening news about sickness and death, which can lead to children feeling afraid, Dr. Dori cautions that children absorb whatever they are exposed to and recommends discussing news and media at an age appropriate level. She says, ”Kids are remarkably resilient, particularly when they have a consistently reliable, supportive adult in their corner and when lines of communication are open and honest." (8)
Listening to music, singing, telling stories and reading to your child are all stimulating activities that help childhood development and can be done at home. Be mindful about you and your child moving your bodies, sleeping and eating nutritiously. Avoid dealing with boredom by eating or feeding junk food. When you feel anxious, try a simple breathing exercise to help you feel calm. Stay connected with family, friends and online resources. Ask for help when you and your children need it and know that this strange pandemic time will pass.
Contact your family doctor or pediatrician for developmental check-ups and vaccinations.
For Ontarians who do not have a health care provider, Health Care Connect is a service to help you find a family doctor or nurse practitioner in your community. www.ontario.ca 1-800-445-1822 M-F 9-5
Dr. Dori Skye Engel, ND, Naturopathic Doctor, Birth Doula, www.familynaturopathy.ca
EarlyON Child and Family Centres www.toronto.ca offers free virtual and telephone programs for parents and or caregivers and children from birth to six years
Early Abilities (Speech and Language. Vision, Hearing) Toronto Public Health, [email protected] 416-338-8255 M-F 9am-3pm EST
To book an appointment with a Toronto Public Health clinic for free student vaccinations: www.tphbookings.ca
aboutkidshealth.ca is a health education website with multilingual content for children, youth and their caregivers by SickKids.
www.teens.aboutkids.ca is a health education website just for teens by SickKids.
1 Ruiz, Rebecca, “For New Parents, there’s reason to relax about the pandemic’s effect on a baby’s development,” Social Good Series, mashable.com, May 27, 2020
2 “Baby Talks: Parent Coronavirus Questions Answered” zerotothree.org, Mar 30, 2020
3 McNaughton-Cassill, Mary, PhD, “The Kids Will Be Alright: Teaching, learning and growing during a pandemic,” Mental Health Matters, psychologytoday.com, August 12, 2020
4 Yoshikawa, Hirokazu, PhD, Alice J. Wuermli, PhD, Pia Rebello Britto, PhD, Bernard Dreyer, MD, James F. Leckman, MD, PhD, Stephen J. Lye, PhD, Liliana Angelica Ponguta, PhD, Linda M. Richter, PhD and Alan Stein, FRCPsych, “ Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short-and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions, The Journal of Pediatrics, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
5 McNaughton-Cassill, Mary, PhD, “The Kids Will Be Alright: Teaching, learning and growing during a pandemic,” Mental Health Matters, psychologytoday.com, August 12, 2020
6 Yoshikawa, Hirokazu, PhD, Alice J. Wuermli, PhD, Pia Rebello Britto, PhD, Bernard Dreyer, MD, James F. Leckman, MD, PhD, Stephen J. Lye, PhD, Liliana Angelica Ponguta, PhD, Linda M. Richter, PhD and Alan Stein, FRCPsych, “ Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short-and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions, The Journal of Pediatrics, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
8 Dr. Dori Skye Engel, ND, Naturopathic Doctor, Birth Doula, www.familynaturopathy.ca