At the age of two, babies born during the pandemic have similar behaviour and development compared with children who were born before Covid-19 arrived – with one exception. Their communication skills lag behind those of their predecessors.

These are the intriguing findings of a study – carried out by researchers based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) – which examined what life was like for babies born during the pandemic, and the implications for their health and development.

The study – carried out by a team led by Susan Byrne, senior lecturer at the RCSI, and Jonathan Hourihane, the RCSI’s professor of paediatrics – focused on babies born in the first three months of lockdown and compared them with a similar group of babies born before the pandemic. A total of 354 families and their babies were involved in the study.

“We wanted to understand what life was like for babies born during the pandemic, and what it might mean for their general health and development,” Byrne told the Observer.

The team’s discoveries were striking. They found that, at six months, an average of only three people had kissed babies, including their parents – indicating babies had met very few relatives or family friends. One in four babies had not met another child their own age by their first birthday, it was also revealed.

Byrne added that when parents were asked what it felt like to raise a child during lockdown they frequently used words such as “lonely” and “isolating”. On the other hand, it was also found that family time and bonding expanded.

Babies born during the pandemic probably heard fewer words because they were not getting out of their houses, and this may have led to their slightly lower communication scores compared with those of children born earlier.

However, for other attributes – such as motor skills and problem-solving ability – no overall drop in performance was recorded. In addition, questionnaires filled in by parents revealed no differences in their children’s behaviour with regard to sleep problems, anxiety or social withdrawal.

Lockdown in London. A study has found that the lack of social interaction as people were urged to stay at home has had an effect on babies. Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Now the group is hoping to extend the study and follow babies until they start school at the age of five. “That is going to be really important,” Byrne told the Observer.

“Covid restrictions ended quite a while ago, and babies have been out and about doing normal activities, meeting other people, going to play groups. And you’d hope that the findings would settle by the age of five – but we need to find out conclusively if that is really the case.”

The relatively encouraging conclusions of the Irish study contrast with the academic performances of older children.

Last week it was revealed that primary school pupils in England were still doing worse in mathematics and writing compared with standards that were established before the pandemic forced school closures. Reading performance was also found to have stalled.

Standard assessment tests (Sats), taken in England at the end of primary school, showed a slight improvement on last year but results remained far behind 2019, according to figures released last week. Tests were not taken in 2020 and 2021 because of Covid disruption.

Fewer than three-fifths of pupils are reaching the expected standard in the key subjects of reading, writing and maths, it was found. This year’s figure of 59% is down from 65% before lockdown and is considerably lower than the government’s target of 90% of pupils meeting the expected standard in all three disciplines at key stage 2 by 2030.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The results confirm the point made by teachers and researchers: primary schools are still deeply affected by the pandemic, and Sats worsen this already difficult situation. Funding is inadequate.

“Class sizes are growing. The jobs of support staff have been cut. There is no substantial programme to support educational recovery.”

‘In lockdown they didn’t hear me chatting with other mums’

Alex Thomas with Maddison and Jacob in July 2023
Alex Thomas with Maddison and Jacob in July 2023 Photograph: Family Handout

Alex Thomas, mother of Jacob, three, and Maddie, four, lives in Waltham Forest. “Both of my children have been referred for speech and language therapy. Jacob was born in April 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, when my daughter was 18 months old. Her nursery closed, so she stopped going.

“During lockdown, my ­children did not have the daily exposure to play groups and friends and ­family they would otherwise ­naturally have had. Like everyone else, we rarely met up with other people so they didn’t often hear me chatting with other mums and their kids, for example.

“I noticed Maddie’s language wasn’t developing. At two, she still wasn’t saying any words, so I asked my health visitor to refer her to a speech therapist. The ­sessions took place over Zoom and the ­therapist only interacted with me, not my daughter. I don’t believe they helped her in the slightest.

“Even in September 2022, when she was nearly four, she wasn’t really talking. Since then, we’ve been paying £80 an hour for private speech therapy.

“Jacob has also been on a ­waiting list for speech therapy since February. When he started nursery, he wasn’t saying any distinguish­able words. At that point, I went on an eight-week course called Tots Talking, run by the charity Speech and Language UK, which was really good.

“They explained ways I could improve my communication with my children – for example by narrating what we were doing and seeing when we were alone together.

“I learned I had to be really ­present, look at what they were looking at and talk about it.

“Jacob is three now and he’s still behind his peers. I think that’s at least partly due to the isolation we endured during the pandemic. Many people struggle to understand what he’s saying, and he shies away from talking to other children sometimes as a result.

“He’ll get frustrated when he tries to tell us something and we don’t understand him. It makes him sad, and eventually he stops trying. He goes quiet. It’s heartbreaking.” Donna Ferguson


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