Around this time last year, an inexorable force swept into people’s lives. It upended everything — relationships, friendships, routines, work life, independence, and sense of control. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has similarities to another dramatic event — becoming a parent. And just like the pandemic, nothing quite prepares you for it.
For all those who became parents in the last year, these two realties have collided. New parents have been left without many of the usual support networks that help support them through the early days. Those networks include their own parents, parent-baby groups, informal social networks, and in-person postnatal and breastfeeding support groups. Added to all this is the constant threat from a life-threatening virus.
“We hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home, that lays positive foundations for the developing brain.”
It is too soon to say what effect these extraordinary circumstances will have on babies born during the pandemic, but the effect on parents is already being felt. Numerous studies show that parents have found lockdowns extremely hard emotionally, and that the strain they are under has affected their ability to parent, which has consequences for children. The lockdowns have been linked to an increase in parental anxiety, depression, and hostility. And the pandemic has put women at increased risk of anxiety and depression in the perinatal period. At the same time, increased parental support has been shown to help decrease stress associated with the pandemic. The brunt of this burden has fallen on certain groups, including single parents and low-income families.
Because of this, it is vital that new parents receive additional support at this difficult time, especially in terms of their mental health.
There are some very simple, intuitive ways parents can work on laying the foundations for their children’s development from the very early days. One of the simplest of these is to pick up a book and read together.
Plenty of evidence shows how important it is to read with children, not least for their cognitive development and vocabulary. In one study, both the quality of the books and the amount of reading time starting at six months were important predictors of literacy and vocabulary four years later. New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects, and that these interactions might also help reduce the stress parents are feeling.
Adults who interact sensitively with a child — for instance, reading or singing, looking at the same things, and copying sounds and faces — help children feel safe and secure. In turn, these feelings can help children cope better in challenging situations later on — something we know is important during the pandemic. These interactions also encourage children to explore more, which helps them develop problem-solving skills. All this builds to the kind of learning and development that prepares children for big steps in life, like starting school.
This cascade of development is supported by the science of early learning, which shows that parents and caregivers lay the foundation for secure caregiver-child attachment relationships, which help children develop the ability to focus and pay attention, remember instructions, and demonstrate self-control (also called executive function). Positive caregiver-child interactions also help children develop social-emotional skills, such as cooperating and playing well with others, and managing feelings appropriately. Together, secure relationships and strong social-emotional and executive function skills in children are related to resilience and school readiness.
“New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading or singing together promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects.”
The children are not the only ones who benefit. Positive and engaging interactions between children and the adults in their lives are also good for the adults, helping them become more confident caregivers. Reading to children may also help with parental stress and even depression.
It can feel strange to read books to very young babies. Even without a pandemic, the early days of parenthood can be overwhelming and it can be hard for parents to know what they should be doing, especially given the deluge of parenting advice. Parents also underestimate just how early the care they provide has long-term impacts on their children’s development. For instance, in one survey, parents said they believed what they did started to make a difference at six months, but we know that the impact starts from birth. At a time when uncertainty abounds, especially for new parents, we hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home. And that the simple back and forth that reading and rhyming creates can extend beyond the pages of the book and lay positive foundations for the developing brain that last for many years.