If you’re worried about how more than a year of quarantine is affecting toddlers’ health and development, you’re not alone.
Decades of research show that a child’s brain develops most rapidly during the first three years of life, producing more than one million new neural connections a second. These connections are critical in laying the foundation for a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. We also know that the early years of “brain-building” are influenced by life experiences, relationships, and the environment.
So, what happens when all of these factors are shaped by mask wearing, social distancing, delayed enrollment for in-person education, and limited interactions with children and adults outside of your immediate family?
The Good News
“In general, for most children, I think any negative effects (of quarantine), such as a language delay or immune system development, will be temporary—if they exist at all,” Dr. Jason Goldstein, M.D., F.A.A.P, tells Parentology. Dr. Goldstein is the health and wellness advisor for Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care. “If the home is a safe space with consistent language-based stimulation and outlets for physical activity, there is no reason to think a child’s development will be adversely impacted.” However, if parents are worried, Goldstein suggests that they contact their pediatrician for specific recommendations.
If you’ve been concerned that limiting your toddler’s world to your home and an occasional errand is having a negative impact on their social and emotional development, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
“Being with their parents, a lot, and not running to too many places or seeing people is the life they know—for now,” Dr. Tovah Klein, Ph.D., Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive tells Parentology. “If there is love and care in their life, I don’t see an overall reason to worry.”
What trend has Klein noticed? “Children bouncing back quickly. As soon as they get outside, go to a playground, meet up with relatives they have not seen, they adjust. There might be a transition, as it is new, but quickly they bounce back.”
Klein explains that if adults feel safe, children pick up on that. It gives them the comfort to move forward, they’ll just need time to adjust. And if a child is holding back not acclimating to new situations with people even when given support and time to adjust, then Klein says a parent may need to seek extra help or support.
You Are a Great Playdate, For Now.
There’s no need to feel guilty that your toddler is missing out on playdates, birthday parties, music classes, or even brief encounters with children at the park.
“As long as children have meaningful and regular interactions with someone in their family, that will go a long way in advancing their social/emotional and cognitive milestones,” explains Goldstein. “Having siblings can be beneficial but a close grandparent can be as influential to a child’s development as siblings. Each family’s situation is unique.”
Klein agrees. “Children under three thrive because of their relationship with parents and other loving adults in their life,” says Klein, explaining that it’s through this relationship that a child begins their developmental path. “Being with peers comes next, but it does not have to be formal,” she says. “There’s no evidence that not being with peers will harm a toddler.”
The Silver Linings
There’s no doubt it’s been a challenging and stressful time for most families. Yet, despite the countless struggles of raising a toddler while in quarantine during a pandemic, families have managed to experience a number of positive effects.
“For some families, the increased time spent together within the home during quarantine has in fact made them more connected and closer,” Elizabeth Johnson, a speech-language pathologist at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) tells Parentology. She says some parents have even indicated that quarantine has actually supported growth in their child’s developmental language skills.
“Children learn an abundance of language from familiar adults and children in their environment,” Johnson explains. “Therefore, additional family time together can provide a child with more opportunities to observe, practice, and learn new skills in their natural environment.”
Other benefits includes parents having to slow down for their child, and older siblings becoming closer to the toddler. This allowed everyone to be more present with one another throughout the day. Klein also points out that having an older sister or brother at home instead of in school or other activities has given toddlers a unique opportunity to bond with their sibling.
That said, there are some areas of possible concern, such as with speech-language development.
“We won’t know the long-term effects that quarantining will have on a toddler’s speech and language development until further research has been conducted,” Lindsay Macklin, a speech-language pathologist at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) tells Parentology.
That said, there are ways that parents can help toddlers continue to develop language and social skills right now.
“By including kids in everyday activities, such as cooking and straightening up the play area, parents are naturally creating opportunities to build communication skills,” Macklin explains. Johnson also offers a few simple ways that parents can incorporate speech/language-building into their busy days.
- When talking to your child, be at eye level and give them the undivided attention that they need to engage in language.
- Imaginative play and movement encourage language.
- Most children this age love to hear and participate in songs that are repetitive and have actions to go with them. A round of “The Wheels on the Bus” goes a long way to encourage language.
- Taking time to read a book and tell a story teaches children the world of language.
The Transition Ahead
As we slowly return to pre-pandemic life, there will be an adjustment period for all of us. Toddlers are no exception. And they are definitely going to need our help.
When toddlers enter the social world, Klein says you may notice them “holding back or watching longer than they might have, or approaching in an overly aggressive, excited way. They may resist going, or have a lot of conflict when they first are around other children—it’s all new!”
She recommends taking small steps in introducing new situations.
“Be patient and meet children where they are,” says Goldstein. “If they are anxious, meet them with calm confidence. Make sure to communicate with them about what they can expect and let them know they are safe.”
How Quarantine Is Affecting Toddlers — Sources
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
Zero to Three
Dr. Jason Goldstein, M.D., F.A.A.P and health and wellness advisor for Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care
Dr. Tovah Klein, Ph.D., Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive
Elizabeth Johnson, M.S. CCC-SLP, C/NDT, Speech Language Pathologist at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), Pediatric Rehabilitation
Lindsay Macklin, M.S. CCC-SLP, TSSLD, Speech Language Pathologist at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), Pediatric Rehabilitation