Mindy Crawford gave birth to her daughter at just 33 weeks last August. When Crawford held her 5-pound baby in her arms, surrounded by masked nurses, she told herself she’d protect her daughter from “the outside.”
Crawford’s daughter, Miya, hasn’t left their home in North Carolina besides for doctors visits since she arrived home after a 5-day stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
“My daughter was so tiny and weak when she was born, and I was so terrified and still am that this virus could hurt her,” Crawford said.
Her daughter hasn’t met another baby – or anyone aside from Crawford and her husband. Their family isn’t alone, some parents who have welcomed babies during the pandemic have expressed fear of exposing their newborns to COVID-19. This fear has taken center stage and they are struggling with when and how to socialize their babies.
Crawford’s husband works from home and runs errands for the family when necessary. Although Crawford is now fully vaccinated, she feels anxious about bringing her daughter out in public.
The fear is shared by Megan Biondi, who gave birth to her daughter in September 2020.
“At the start of the pandemic, we were excited about isolation because that meant family time. But that got old very quickly. The thought of the virus affecting my daughter was so anxiety-inducing,” Biondi, a New Jersey resident said.
Just last week, after the family got vaccinated, Biondi allowed family members to hold her daughter without a mask on.
Biondi’s boundaries when it comes to her daughter have sparked conflict with her husband’s family. When her daughter was 6 weeks old, Biondi opted to skip a family member’s wedding, which caused an argument.
In depth:A father, his baby, and a family divided by the pandemic
“We tried putting her safety first, even when that meant not going outside or seeing family,” Biondi said.
Parents weigh safety against socialization
Biondi and Crawford’s infants have yet to meet another infant face-to-face. They’re not alone. The lack of socialization for pandemic infants is prevalent enough that a TikTok trend has emerged of parents filming their babies’ reactions as they show them other babies on TV.
Biondi, whose family lives in Ireland, said her daughter is “mesmerized” when they FaceTime relatives, and she coos watching other infants on TV.
Dr. Lindsay Thompson, director of the Pediatric Research Hub at the University of Florida, said pandemic parents should be careful to avoid excessive screen-time with their infants. Thompson noted the American Academy of Pediatrics states children under the age of 2 should not use media and if so, less than 2 hours per day. Thompson recommends parents opt for time outside and in parks rather than screen-time.
“We don’t know how much levels of isolation will affect children, but we do know in the cumulative that less interactions mean less learning,” Thompson said.
Crawford uses TV shows and videos to entertain her baby but worries it may harm her future development.
And after months of isolation, Biondi has begun to worry her daughter will struggle to socialize with other children when the time comes. Although she hasn’t set up playdates with other families yet, she’s considering bringing the baby to some group classes.
“I’m slowly, very slowly starting to feel more comfortable about the possibility of taking her out in public and around others if they’re being safe,” Biondi said.
Crawford has similar concerns that are exacerbated since her daughter was born prematurely. While she understands her daughter will need to socialize with other babies eventually, she said she’s worried about potential exposure to germs and COVID-19.
“It’s hard to see your child at such a fragile state and then view the world in an even more fragile state with the virus. I’m not sure what’s safe for her anymore,” Crawford said.
What do the experts say?
Thompson suggests parents build a “pod” with families where children can interact safely. In pods, families usually adhere to each other’s COVID-19 precautions such as being vaccinated, not traveling, etc.
In addition to the pods, Thompson recommends children interact outdoors with adults who are fully vaccinated. She recommends young children stay at home while parents run errands but suggested parents plan safe outings for them like trips to the park.
She said it’s important parents start socialization slowly as to not overwhelm kids and infants who have become accustom to staying home.
Socialization is more critical for toddlers and preschoolers, said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Katzenstein said she’s seen toddlers and young children, ages 2-5, who are struggling to learn to share toys and read social cues from their peers.
“[Socialization] is important regardless of age and we do not know the impact on our youngest, especially NICU babies who may only be seeing people in masks from birth to many months of age,” Katzenstein said.
“Pre-schoolers and kids are being placed back into school after months just at home and they’re struggling to interact with others again,” Katzenstein said. “Parents can help by showing their kids the appropriate way to react with their own actions.”
If children see their parents positively interacting and sharing with others, they’ll mimic the behavior. However, Katzenstein added children can’t be expected to immediately learn these social cues after months of isolation due to the pandemic.
When it comes to deciding when to have playdates or meet with other children, Katzenstein said parents must compromise. If one parent is uncomfortable with seeing another family, the other must respect that fear.
However, Dr. Victoria Regan, a pediatrician at Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas, said parents of infants shouldn’t worry about the lack of socialization or “outside time.”
“Parents can be reassured that the pandemic’s restrictions won’t affect their young infant and toddler’s behavior and development,” she said.
What’s most important is that parents interact and play with their child, Regan said, recommending parents speak to their infants in a soothing manner and read books to foster healthy social interactions.
The experts say new parents also need to be sure they are taking care of their own mental health.
“The extreme stress that they have been under will have ripple, additive effects on their children if they don’t seek care if and when needed,” Thompson said. “Mental health providers are experts in helping families cope with the experience losses and the anxiety that re-introduction is already causing.”
Regan added if a parent becomes depressed that could prevent them from interacting with their child, which can hinder the child’s development.
“The good news is once the parent seeks help for themselves and the child senses that things are more stable and nurturing, their development will fall back into place,” Regan said.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda