Hannah Rock’s second born son, 15-month-old Abe, looks uncannily like his brother did at the same age: ruddy cheeked, big eyed and bonny. But Abe was born just before the UK went into lockdown and has had a very different start to life. While his brother, Sonny, was passed around and cuddled by countless relatives and family friends, Abe has never known a world without social distancing. He’s only been held by a handful of people; he’s missed all the rhyme times, playgroups and other social interactions his brother enjoyed; he’s barely even been on a bus or train. "He takes noticeably longer than Sonny to warm up to people," says Rock. "He had a fit a couple of months ago in the supermarket, when a woman took a shine to him and tried to engage him. There was a period where he would be hysterical if we took him inside a building that wasn’t his home."
For the babies born in the last 12 months, their first interactions with other people have been largely on-screen or behind a mask. How will a year of staying at home and social distancing affect this generation’s development?
"Our first child saw hundreds of people in her first six months. Our second, who was born last May, probably saw fewer than 20," says Atalanta Hicks Beach. A doctor, she was working in a hospital neonatal unit when the pandemic hit last year. Given her medical experience, was she concerned about the effect of isolation? "One hundred per cent yes. I worried the lack of social interaction would impact on her social skills. When we finally took her to meet another baby in the park, she was so happy. It was almost like she was high. It drove home just how much babies crave that opportunity to touch, to laugh with, to interact with other babies."
Babies begin to seek out human faces within hours of their birth. Last March, fMRI scans showed that newborn brains appear hardwired to do so.
"Faces are such an important, rich source of information," says Pasco Fearon, chair of developmental psychopathy at University College London. They are, he explains, the first building blocks of our learning about communication, relationships, and lots more social information. From here, "babies then start to build much more sophisticated learning about what faces can look like, differentiating individuals and facial expressions. But you need to orientate to that, right from the word go, so that you get the right information coming in."
The negative impact of lockdowns on toddlers and school-aged children has been much discussed. Research by the Education Endowment Foundation earlier this year showed that an increased number of four and five-year-olds needed help with language. Less contact with grandparents and friends, and the wearing of face coverings in public have left children less exposed to conversations and everyday experiences.
Sally Hogg, head of policy at Parent-Infant Foundation, says a frustrating perception endures that "babies just sit there in the bouncer for the first year and start responding to their environments later, so this hasn’t really affected them. Whereas we actually know that they are far more responsive to their environments than older children are, but you can’t see it there."
Babies’ brains double in size in the first year of life, says James Goodwin, director of the Brain Health Network and author of Supercharge Your Brain, and this extraordinary rate of development relies in part on social interaction.
"The early years are exceptionally important. You’ve got this environmentally thirsty, living entity inside the cranium, whose development is totally dependent on nutrition, social interaction and the great things in the environment."
During the pandemic, we have all been socially and environmentally starved. While babies have a lifetime to make up for this, development is not linear, says Goodwin: "It’s steeply curved. And you go through critical periods. Unless you learn certain things at certain times, it makes it that little bit more difficult for that development to occur."
Lockdown and the switch to home working have also brought some advantages for babies. In one study of 1,200 mothers in the UK, around 40 per cent said it had had a positive impact, bringing them privacy, more time and support from their partner, and having more time to focus on their baby, which made them more confident, and allowed them to breastfeed for longer.
Tim Peffers, whose son Oscar was born in July, says that, the sadness of grandparental separation aside, "it was probably a good thing, broadly, that we were forced to stay in and take it easy together." In normal circumstances, his commute would have meant he’d see Oscar for just an hour a day; instead, while working from home, he sees him repeatedly throughout the day.
According to Fearon, in the first year of life, responsive interactions and secure attachment with primary care-givers are the key to healthy development. So for those babies lucky enough to have parents at home, and able to focus on them, not seeing as many different faces is unlikely to leave a permanent mark. Quality, in other words, makes up for quantity. For those who are not so fortunate, however, the pandemic is likely to expose and worsen inequalities.
"Many babies will be absolutely fine. In fact, they’ll actually have had more nurturing care during the pandemic," says Hogg. "But there will be a group of babies who just haven’t had the stimulation and care needed for their brains and bodies to develop properly. For them, there will be serious consequences to having been born in the last year."
She gives the example of babies born into cramped, temporary housing during lockdown. "These families were shut into rooms where there was no floor space. So babies haven’t been able to crawl or walk. Fundamental physical development hasn’t happened. Or they’ve learnt to walk on a bed, because it’s the only flat space available. We’re talking about small numbers of disadvantaged families, but horrendous impacts."
"As with every other aspect of this pandemic, the most deprived have been hit hardest," says Fearon. "Even the babies. Which is just tragic."
Postnatal exposure to parental stress and mental ill-health has been associated – though not causally – with delays in language, emotional and behavioural problems in children.
Experts agree though, that babies are impressively resilient and adaptive, and that as restrictions lift, the vast majority will thrive on the new experiences they’ve been deprived of for so long.
Atalanta Hicks Beach says her daughter already seeks out ways to interact with others however she can. "I’ve found it astounding that strangers would smile at her in the street, while wearing masks, and she’d recognise their expression just by seeing their eyes, and smile back."
The Daily Telegraph