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Stress

How to Support Babies with Pandemic-Induced Social Stress

To support young children focus on connection and easing transitions.

Key points

  • As communities reopen, some babies and toddlers are showing signs of increased social stress.
  • Beyond all other factors, caregiver stress will have the most impact on baby stress.
  • Social anxiety and reluctance to transition to new environments can be a product of their generally stressed state.
  • To support young children focus on connection and easing transitions.
Copyright Rebecca Drobis Photography, courtesy of Zero to Three
A parent and toddler wearing masks.
Source: Copyright Rebecca Drobis Photography, courtesy of Zero to Three

Co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rahil Briggs, Psy.D.

Are children really that resilient?

Yes, but children of all ages, including babies and toddlers, have been affected by the social changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And now, with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about reopening, some babies and toddlers are showing signs of increased stress and stranger-social anxiety as communities begin to open.

Why Adult Stress Matters

When the world turned upside-down, families had to make drastic changes to their daily lives. Regular routines went out the window (or maybe got very rigid) and parent and caregiver stress climbed sky-high.

  • Adult stress and mental health affect baby stress and mental health, making the connection between the caregiver and baby an important one. Beyond all other factors, caregiver stress will have the most impact on baby stress. Caregivers should try to reduce the stress in their lives as much as possible.
  • Before you engage with your child, pause and take three deep breaths. Engage in mindfulness exercises and any other practices that help you feel calm—long walks, a warm bath, or a conversation with a friend.

And as we re-open, here’s some additional context to keep in mind:

  • A young child’s experience of this pandemic is relative. If the pandemic had lasted a year it would be 1/30th of a 30-year-old’s life. For a 2-year-old, it’s half their life. For babies born in the past year, this new reality is all they’ve ever known. They have only ever seen a sea of masked faces when they go out into the world. They have never had an outing where they were passed around to all the guests at the party. Speaking of that, what's a party? Many typical experiences for babies of generations past—ones that would have fueled aspects of their social and emotional growth—have not happened for a whole cohort of babies.
  • Masked faces affect some babies’ development. Preliminary research shows that widespread masking may have affected some babies’ development. Because faces are something that babies really focus on, their absence—covered by masks—can lead to problems. Columbia University’s COMBO (Covid-19 Mother Baby Outcomes) Initiative studies the effects of the pandemic on mothers and babies and they note a decline of about 50 percent in emotional connection scores since the pandemic started (“4 Ways to Connect,” 2021).
  • Brains are particularly active during the first three years of life. The latest research has made it clear that the period between birth and age three is critical for brain development and learning. Babies and toddlers produce more than a million neural connections each second (“A Million Reasons,” 2017). This busy period for the brain may be what makes young children resilient, as new neural pathways are created and others pruned, but it also leaves them vulnerable.
Amahuron/Shutterstock
Toddler and their grandparent.
Source: Amahuron/Shutterstock

How to Support Babies and Toddlers Amid the Transition

When babies and toddlers are stressed, they may display that stress in many different ways, such as crying, regression, and other challenging behaviors. Their social anxiety and reluctance to transition to new environments or other caregivers can be a product of their generally stressed state. Some suggestions for supporting them through this time:

  • Focus on connection. Any practice that improves your bond with your baby is great right now. Take off your mask as soon as you can and look at your baby, make eye contact, and give them access to all your facial expressions. Other practices that involve close contact are helpful, including lots of snuggles. You might want to prolong the breastfeeding relationship if that’s possible and mutually agreeable, and also increase skin-to-skin contact (“4 Ways to Connect,” 2021).
  • Pay attention to easing separation and transitions. Transitions can be tough under the best of circumstances, but right now anxiety around change may be heightened as schedules fluctuate and change rapidly due to COVID. Bringing more sensitivity to large and small transitions will be valuable. Tell your baby or toddler what will happen before it happens, even if you’re not sure they will fully understand: "After breakfast, we will put our shoes on, get in the car, and drive to child care." It doesn’t hurt to talk to your child during transitions either, as this can also be soothing: “I’m taking your shirt off. Now your pants are off, and you’ll be getting in this warm bath.”
  • Make and stick with routines. The structure is soothing and can help everyone in the family to stay emotionally regulated. When you feel worn out it’s tempting to let go of rituals and routines, but that’s when they can serve you—and your growing child—best. Try using visual or auditory cues to convey to your child through pictures and sounds what will happen next. Timers, charts, and clocks can help some older toddlers, but cause stress for others. Experiment to find out what is most helpful.

Some added attention in these areas can make a positive difference for babies and toddlers who are feeling skeptical and anxious about this changed larger world. And soon, may they know exactly the joy of being passed around from loved one to loved one at a family party.

References

4 Ways to Connect with Your Baby During a Pandemic. (2021, April 8). Columbia: Nurture Science Program. https://nurturescienceprogram.org/4-ways-to-connect-with-your-baby-duri…

A Million Reasons to Learn About Baby Brain Development. (2017, June 1). ZERO TO THREE. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1893-a-million-reasons-to-learn-a…

Ehmke, R. (n.d.). Anxiety and Coping With the Coronavirus. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/anxiety-and-coping-with-coronavirus/

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