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Emotional Aftermath of Covid-19: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I, and our daughter (7 months-old) all had Covid-19 last week. Even though my husband and I were fully boosted, we were down for days and often out of commission. The baby was miserable. So much crying. Unfortunately Grandma and Grandpa, who live nearby, also had the virus at the same time. (We are pretty sure everyone got it at a family get together ten days prior.)

Other than occasional coughing, which I understand is to be expected, I’m happy to say we are back to normal health-wise. My concern is whether the baby will have any lasting effects of this stressful experience.

That Was Rough

Dear TWR,

That’s a great question which hopefully will be researched and addressed in the coming years. Typically any interruption to the daily routine, and or a reduced reliability of caregiving, is upsetting to an infant. On the positive side, by being aware of what your family has been through, you can address this very personal episode in a chapter of world history to soften the effect on your baby.

Infant Needs

The best environment for an infant includes responsive caregivers who can tune into and respond accurately to her needs. She’s hungry, she gets fed. She’s tired, she is helped to fall asleep. She’s bored, she gets something interesting to do. She’s uncomfortable, her position, her clothing, or her diaper gets changed. She is frightened, she is made to feel safe.

If a baby is sick – with a fever, chills, sore throat, headache, and or congestion – she needs even more attentive care to soothe her physical and psychological distress.

Major Disruptions

The situation you report – with both parents, and the nearby grandparents all not in good working order – was certainly hard on your little one. Plus, she was sick during this time. The pandemic continues to affect family life.

Research is emerging on the effects of the pandemic on early child development. A consortium led by Rhode Island Hospital looked at pre-pandemic cognitive assessments of very young children as compared to 2020 and 2021.

“We find that children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.”

The researchers point to “the environmental changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic” as “significantly and negatively affecting infant and child development”. While this research focused on cognitive skills, “the concern for child development stemmed principally from the known impact that family and home stress, parent and child anxiety, lack of stimulating environments, and other adversities can have on the developing infant and child brain.” Stressful experiences, especially those that are intense, frequent, and or ongoing, are known to interfere with optimal development. When her caregivers aren’t doing a satisfactory job of caregiving, a baby has to cry louder just to get fed. When a baby doesn’t feel that her world is safe and predictable, she can’t focus on less important needs such as exploring and learning about the world around her.

Recovery Ahead

Happily your family’s physical distress is behind you. You can make up for a lost week of attentive caregiving with extra attention to your little one. As with any upsetting experience it is important to reassure your baby that, yes, that was a rough week, but that she can unquestionably count on her parents and grandparents to tend to her needs. Even though she may not understand your words yet, the emotional dialogue between you is what’s important here.

Review this Covid-19 experience with her from time to time. “We were all so sick. You cried and cried. Then we got better from the virus and things got back to normal.” In a few years the words will have more meaning for her. When she’s a toddler with a baby (doll) of her own, you can direct the scene of a sick baby and sick parent – with all the drama your daughter wants to put into it – finishing with a joyful ending of everyone being well again. (Imagine fifty or more years from now as she proudly retells her tale of woe and triumph to anyone too young to have gone through this historic event themselves.)

It was unfortunate, and extra challenging, that your daughter’s caregiving grown-ups were all sick at once. You couldn’t help one another. Use this as a springboard as you process how hard that was and strive to be there for each other going forward. Your baby will benefit the most from a loving and tight-knit family that travels the ups and downs of life together.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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