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Will all the under-socialized babies born in 2020 be OK?

Today's Parent logo Today's Parent 2020-11-02 Delaney Seiferling
a baby sitting in a chair: Photo: iStock/AlenaMozhjer © Used with permission of / © St. Joseph Communications. Photo: iStock/AlenaMozhjer

Earlier this year, my new baby girl finally got to meet her grandma for the first time. 

I handed her over to Omi, and grabbed my camera in order to capture this momentous occasion, which had been put off for months due to COVID-19 restrictions where we live in Regina, Sask.

But there would be no photo.

My daughter screamed and screamed—a horrified cry that seemed to say, “WHO IS THIS STRANGE WOMAN!”

This was new for me. 

My older daughter, now three, had been happy to be passed around to anyone, at any time, as an infant.

After the few moments it took the three of us to recover, my mom and I realized that my daughter, having been born weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns were implemented, had really only been exposed to her immediate family for the first several months of her life. Further, she barely knew that a world outside our house existed.

We wondered, could this be why she was so skittish around new faces, and “making strange” now? 

In the following months, I began to hear similar concerns from other new moms and dads affected by COVID shutdowns. Some were worried that their babies seemed overly anxious with new people and environments, while others reported children who were starved for social interaction and attention. One mom mentioned that her son kept crawling towards the baby on the Pampers box for a one-sided babble session—he’d never gotten to play with (or even near) other infants IRL.

The underlying theme was that, collectively, we are worried that we’re negatively impacting the social development of babies born into COVID times by limiting their opportunities for social interaction. Is their separation anxiety and sensitivity to strangers going to stick with them for months and years to come?

We spoke with psychologist Sheri Madigan, an expert in child development and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, about these concerns and what parents can do. 

Q: First of all, should we be so worried about our babies’ social skills? 

It’s true that we don’t know the long term effects yet, but no, I wouldn’t be too worried. Learning happens in the context of relationships. For babies and even children up to age three, the most important primary social interactions they have are with their caregivers—that’s where they’re going to learn the most about social skills. 

Parents model how to engage in social interactions. Most children then take those learned skills and apply them to their social interactions with other children, caregivers and teachers later on in their lives.

So a six-month-old baby doesn’t need to interact with other six-month-olds to learn how to be social—they’ll learn those skills by interacting with parents and siblings.

Q: So how can we make sure we are doing a good job of teaching our kids how to be socially interactive at home?

The best way to do this is to simply tune into your baby’s cues and signals. Interactions between babies and their primary caregivers should mimic a tennis game. When babies “serve” up a cue, it’s like a tennis ball crossing a net. The parent’s role is to perceive the cue, and return the serve back to the child with eye contact, words, and/or gestures. A lot of social interaction in our lives—as children and adults—are contingent on being tuned into these serves. 

Q: What do you think about virtual options for baby play groups, like doing baby music classes online? Or mommy-and-me yoga via Zoom? Is it not even worth it at this age?

I would say there is less direct benefit of virtual classes for young children. But these groups can be really helpful for parents to feel socially connected, and that’s really important, especially when many of our usual supports are not directly available to us. 

Q: Can babies have high-quality, serve-and-return interactions virtually? Like, talking to Grandma on Facetime, or showing their cousins their toys via Snapchat videos? Is there any way to ensure screen time is beneficial to them?

It’s important for children (and for their parents) to connect with friends and family socially. However, research shows that children can have a hard time applying concepts learned from a two-dimension screen to their real, three-dimension lives. For example, if they watch someone building blocks online, they can’t apply that learning to their real lives. 

So, the key to making screen time interactions beneficial for children is to ask your family members to follow the child’s lead and make the interactions as reciprocal as possible. Repeating sounds back to them exposes them to language, so the more words they hear, they more they learn! For example, my sister routinely video calls my three-year old twins for virtual story time, during which she reads them books and they talk about what is happening in the pictures. They love it! 

You could also have Grandma call during snack time, eating the same thing as your child. (“We are eating red apples! You know what else is red? Fire trucks!”) This way the shared experience has more meaning to the child.  

Q: Is there a concern that, when babies and young kids do go out these days, they are seeing adults wearing masks, whether it’s their own parents, grandparents, or daycare workers? Does this impact their ability to read facial expressions and learn emotional cues when they can’t see half of the caregiver’s face? 

With masks on, children will miss out on some gestures, like smiling. But we can still respond to most of their cues through words, eye contact and enthusiasm. We can also take extra care to follow their cues and respond accordingly.  

Q: When should parents become concerned about an apparent lack of social skills in kids?

By 14 months, children should engage in what’s called joint or shared attention. Joint attention includes more subtle social interaction cues, like pointing or gazing towards something the caregiver points to. Joint attention is one way children engage with others and share experiences.

If by 15 months your child is not showing joint attention, I recommend seeking support and guidance from your family physician. 

Q: When do babies and toddlers ordinarily start to actively engage with other children? 

At this age, most peer-to-peer social interaction is parallel play. For example, most children under three will play beside another child and might be interested in what they’re doing, but their play isn’t interactive, per se, as each child is largely absorbed with their own toys. This type of play still allows children to learn about social interaction because they are watching and learning from their peers. 

After age three, they start to become a little more active in social interchanges during play with their peers. 

Q: Is there anything you ARE worried about for babies who aren’t experiencing normal social conditions this year? 

I think that it’s the parents who are undergoing a very difficult time right now. We are dealing with so much and we have fewer supports available to us because of COVID restrictions. So that’s my biggest worry right now. I’m a mom of four, so I’ve had several maternity leaves, and I know that this social support during the postnatal period is really critical to your mental health and, in turn, your ability to be enthusiastic about these serve-and-return interactions. 

Q: What coping mechanisms do you recommend for parents who are struggling?

First, If you are struggling, ask friends and family to check in with you more often. Set up outdoor “walk and talks” with someone you can confide in. Connect with your family physician if you feel that support isn’t sufficient to get you through this difficult time.   

Second, focus on what is still in your control—having high-quality serve-and-return interactions with your child.  They’re so important, as we know they can optimize children’s social skills, language skills and well-being later on. 

Finally, be forgiving of the very difficult circumstances you are under. If you are worrying or thinking about your child’s social skills, it means you are already tuning into their needs.

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