OPINION
18/05/2020 10:27 BST

Coronavirus Is Robbing Mothers Of Their Chance To Bond With Their Babies

It might seem a luxury to invest in more support for parents but it would reduce the amount of mental health intervention needed in years – if not decades – to come, writes Emily Tredget.

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mothers and babies

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I recently had the honour of talking at the House of Commons about a petition signed by over 200,000 parents calling for maternity leave to be extended by three months during Covid-19.

The views regarding extending maternity leave vary widely. Some are adamant this is the answer to enabling them to “get back” lost time with their baby; bonding with wider family, building peer support networks, and attending baby classes to help their child develop. Not to mention to avoid the almost impossible task most parents currently find themselves in, juggling full-time jobs alongside full-time homeschooling or childcare whilst nurseries are closed.

But others see this an economic cost society can ill afford at this time – that new parents need to “suck up” the situation they find themselves in, as others do likewise.

For me, the key questions to ask are: how is Covid affecting children’s development; what impact is it having on the mental health of parents, and hence their children; and what can we be doing at this unprecedented time to help.

This Covid-19 outbreak is having a detrimental impact on children’s development – that much is clear.

A lack of bonding and learning opportunitiesare the main developmental issue facing babies and pre-schoolers at the moment. They are not doing normal life – going to the shops, meeting family and friends, or if they have siblings, they don’t even have mum’s undivided attention while older siblings are at school. Babies learn so much from faces and the environment, and right now there is no variation.

We also know lockdown is having a hugely negative impact on maternal mental health, and in turn, childrens’ mental health.

78% of the parents we surveyed felt lockdown had significant negative effects on their mental health.  

There are currently two main reasons for this. Firstly parents are lacking any support systems – from wider family, friends and peers. And secondly many parents are finding themselves in the impossible situation of working full-time whilst homeschooling or caring full-time.

And this is affecting children’s mental health as they are anxious due to their parents being highly stressed, often passing them back and forth between meetings. Parents have no time for a break, no time to even talk to one-another, all the while possibly facing huge financial strains. Poor interactions are known to negatively effect children throughout their lifetime. So something needs to be done, and now.

The government needs to support mental health of parents, and the development of babies.

Whilst it is imperative the government works out how to support parents –whether they are coming off maternity leave, or beyond that point – who are trying to work and look after their children at this tricky time, I feel we need to do something now that both helps parent’s mental wellbeing, and replicates the bonding, developmental and learning experiences that babies are missing, being unable to explore the world outside their four walls. 

While many normal life experiences can’t be had now, adults have become adept at replicating interactions through zoom chats and phone calls. We need to replicate this for our children. We don’t just sit watching TV all day to feel like we have interacted, so can we expect children to develop social skills watching youtube?

Attending baby classes was the top thing parents felt that they needed right now to help maintain their mental wellness, and they are fundamental in helping children to develop. Additionally they will help (as best as we can right now), to socialise children if they do need to head to an unfamiliar nursery for their parent to start working.

Interactive classes are available, and an overwhelming majority find them to be hugely beneficial and of much more valuable than the free options they are currently being promoted. But until they try them they don’t understand the difference of a truly interactive class, or don’t understand the benefits for their family’s mental health.

These solutions will support parents’ mental health and support the development of babies and children. This will reduce the need for huge amounts of mental support now and for years, if not decades to come. The cost of perinatal mental health is estimated to be £8.1bn per year per cohort. The figure for this cohort of babies is going to be significantly higher. And with 70% of this cost attributed not to the mother’s recovering, but to supporting their child throughout their life, this is something we need to investigate financially if not morally.

Mothers and children might seem a luxury to invest in given the challenges our economy and services face. But enabling this major section of society to function effectively will have a large effect on society, the economy, and services more widely than just the narrow experience of mums and babies in the short term.

Emily Tredget is co-founder of Happity - Your Local Baby & Toddler Community.