By Shimin Tian
Crawling over the floor of a small living room, 10-month-old Michael reached the edge of the window facing the street. With his legs shaking, he pulled himself up with one hand and leaned upon the window. He banged the glass with his palm, left a print on the window and fell on his butt with a muffled thump.
“He is saying hello to the mailman,” said Anne Copcutt, a 23-year-old single mother who takes care of her son, Michael, alone in Albrighton, U.K..
“He wants to meet people,” she said. “I feel kind of guilty to keep him inside.”
As the first generation born into this COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Michael has never met anyone other than his family, general practitioner and nurses. Except for grocery shopping and occasionally going for a walk with his mother, Michael’s daily routine has been limited to this 60-square-meter apartment.
Even though a study by Imperial College London has found that the risk of severe COVID-19 infection for newborns is low, Copcutt was not confident about letting her son go out and meet other babies.
“I must look after him,” Copcutt said. “Health is the first priority during this kind of time.”
But as Michael approaches his first birthday, his mother is concerned over his mental health and well-being.
“I think it is important for him to make friends,” she said. “He still can’t speak much, but babies have their own way of communication.”
Parents of newborns and toddlers share the same concern, especially parents who have only one child. Frances Cooper, the mother of 2-year-old Oscar, felt her son has stayed in lockdown for too long and that he needs to meet other children.
“I had to take him to the emergency one day, and he met a baby who can barely walk,” Cooper said. “They chased each other around. Oscar was so happy.” Some of her friends send their children to nurseries, she said, but she cannot trust the staff enough to keep her child from getting in contact with COVID-19.
“Who knows where the staff had been and who did they come into contact with?” she said.
Even though there is evidence showing that newborns and children have a lower chance to suffer severe COVID-19 infection, experts worry they can be a potential source of infection by carrying the virus back to their parents and caretakers at home.
“According to most data we have gathered, it is not fatal to babies without innate immunity issues,”said Dr. Chunyan Hou, a doctor who worked at the Department of Epidemiology of Haikou Municipal Hospital in Haikou, China. “But their parents are not so lucky.”
Hou said children may not suffer any symptom of COVID-19, but they still carry the virus. Nursery can be a “transfer station” of the coronavirus.
Claire Morris, the manager of Poppins Day Nursery in Worcester, U.K., said that since the nursery started to reopen on June 1, 2020, the staff members were fully prepared and ready to operate through this pandemic.
“We established a handwashing and facility cleaning routine since reopening,” said Morris. “We also have a standard procedure in case one of our staff or children gets it.”
Poppins Day Nursery has 16 staff members who took care of 18 to 20 children before the lockdown on March 23, 2020. As the lockdown lifted on June 1, 2020, they are currently taking care of 12 children aged from 9 months to 4 years.
The facility includes one baby room for 0- to 2-year-olds and one toddler room for 2- to 3-year-olds where children can meet each other and play. Laura Batterson, Poppins’ baby room leader, said she recognizes some socialization issues that the long isolation during the lockdown may have caused.
“Some babies that used to come to us before the lockdown are less interactive,” Batterson said. “They cry more often.”
According to a report from the Office for National Statistics in the U.K., it is estimated 676,819 babies will be born in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2020. All those babies would experience some isolation caused by the lockdown, which may lead to mental health and socialization issues.
As socialization issues become a growing concern among parents of babies and toddlers, parents of elementary school students are having similar but different problems. Georgia Williams, the mother of two daughters attending Pitmaston Primary School in Worcester, found her daughters were experiencing more unhappiness even after the school reopened.
“Nancy”–her 7-year-old daughter–“used to be very talkative during dinner,” Williams said, “Now she just finished dinner and goes to her room.”
Her other daughter, who is 10 years old, started a fight at school with another classmate which was very “not her,” she said.
According to a report conducted by Oxford University on 10,000 parents and caretakers of children aged 4-10, parents and caretakers observed an increase in their children’s emotional, behavioral and restless/attentional difficulties over the one-month lockdown.
Professor Ian Copcutt, father of Anne Copcutt and a retired professor of psychology at the University of Birmingham, said mental health problems such as anxiety were already rising in young people before lockdown. “Suicide is already the leading cause of death in 5- to 19-year-olds in England and the second leading cause of death in young people globally,” he said.
He said he fears that isolation during lockdown might lead to lifelong consequences to this generation’s emotional health.
As COVID-19 cases are rising again in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced another round of lockdown starting November 6, 2020. Unlike the U.K.’s previous lockdown, which lasted from March 23, 2020 to June 1, 2020, schools and universities will remain open. However, the socialization issues among babies are still yet to be solved.
“I can only hope this will be over soon,” Anne Copcutt said.