Seeing lockdown through an infant’s eyes

Dawn Hodson
Monday, June 8, 2020

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on all our lives, but none more so than new parents and their babies.

Prior to the pandemic, figures tell us that up to one in five mums and one in 10 dads reported that they experienced perinatal mental health difficulties during pregnancy and in the first year of their child’s life. From the first to the third week of lockdown the number of adults that contacted the NSPCC Helpline about parental mental health increased by just over a quarter (28 per cent).

We know that the mental health of parents in the perinatal period can have long-term effects on infants, especially in relation to their later emotional and behavioural development. These families, and many others, now face increased financial hardship and childcare responsibilities, as well as the difficulties that social isolation brings.

The pandemic brought with it significant and swift social and cultural changes that for some have felt confusing, distressing and isolating. These kinds of experiences are recognised as being potentially traumatic for adults and young children, but often infants’ experiences of trauma are not acknowledged. Even young babies have some capacity to understand others’ behaviours or to feel their emotions.

Feelings and emotions are hard wired into an infant’s neural pathways and stressful relationships with the main caregiver over an extended period can interrupt the laying down of those pathways. However, an infant’s relationship with their main caregivers can also mitigate the impact, especially when they are tuned into what the infant is communicating and can respond appropriately. This co-regulation can only happen if the adult is regulated themselves (not anxious, distracted, worried or overwhelmed). Its likely parents will be finding it harder to tune into their baby’s cues when there is so much interrupting their ability to be present in the moment with their infant.

For some of the families we work with through Building Blocks, a programme designed to help parents gain the practical and emotional skills that help them care for their child, we’ve seen first-hand how some parents are finding it harder to be there for their children emotionally. Parents are also finding it harder to maintain the routines they lived by before lockdown, with some now furloughed or working from home, and older siblings no longer in nursery or school. We know that disruptions in routine, increased levels of noise and disruption in the home, and separation from caregivers are just some of the factors that can affect babies’ mental health, all of which are likely to be exacerbated by the lockdown measures.

To protect the emotional wellbeing of infants now, and mitigate any long-term impact, we must first support parents and caregivers, to help them provide the stable and loving environments their children need to thrive. With the closure of parenting groups, peer and family support less available and a ‘new world’ to navigate, services like Building Blocks enable us to do just that. It’s also why, through our Fight for a Fair Start campaign, we’re calling for all families to get the support they need if they’re struggling with their mental health during the perinatal period

Case study: supporting parents through the Covid-19 pandemic

Jane works with families using the Building Blocks programme and an assessment tool called Family Focus, which can be used to assess risk and need in families.

“In some ways, I’m quite enjoying exploring different ways of working and learning what can be done in new and innovative ways, but my colleagues and the families we work with have had to adapt quickly. Before the pandemic and lockdown measures were introduced, a family was referred to the NSPCC and Building Blocks by their health visitor, as it had been recognised they needed long term intervention. I completed a Family Focus assessment with them, and then progressed to Building Blocks just as Covid-19 began affecting the UK. The family has a range of complex needs and with small children in the home it was important for us to be able to keep supporting them through this time. The main focus of my work originally was helping one parent in particular to engage more with the children. They were struggling to bond and their own support needs were impacting their connection to the children and their development.

When we first started working with them we used our Family Focus assessment to draw up a goal plan for the family, but when lockdown began it meant we weren’t able to finish working through it. Part of this plan was important mirroring work to help with bonding. Usually, I would be there in person for this, showing the parents how to engage the children, and leading them through different types of play, having fun and the importance of eye-contact. With one parent particularly struggling to bond, it was a concern for me that this work couldn’t go ahead in the usual way.

As it turns out, the family have engaged well with the work remotely and I’m really pleased. It’s taken time for me and the family to get used to connecting over the phone and through video calls, but we’re all more comfortable with it now. I can see the whole family on video and it’s a huge reassurance. I can check on the children, how they’re dressed and how they seem. It’s been great to see the parents have taken a lot on board in terms of playing with toys and interacting with their children. As well as these video calls, I have been sending activities like colouring sheets to keep the children occupied and entertained. I’ve also done some work around anger management with the parents, during which we discussed strategies for coping and new ways to approach issues that come up.

Building Blocks is a short-term intervention and because of Covid-19 I will have fewer sessions with the family than usual. It has been very reassuring to know that, thanks to the work I’ve done with the families and other agencies, the family will now receive further support once our work with them has been completed and when things return to some sort of normality. They’re a lovely family and I miss working with them in person but I know when I eventually have to walk away at the end of my sessions with them, they will have a good worker stepping in and continuous support. For me, that is the best possible outcome.”

Visit NSPCC Learning, our website for professionals, to find out more about Building Blocks and other direct services, or to access our COVID-19 hub, where we’re publishing the latest resources and information that can help you keep children safe during lockdown and beyond. Please also help us campaign for parent and infant mental health support by taking our Fight for a Fair Start campaign action. It only takes two minutes.

Dawn Hodson is the early years theme lead at the NSPCC

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