A baby girl toddles down the pavement, stopping only to squeeze a drop of sanitiser on to her hands and rub them carefully together. Except she’s not stopping at hand-gel pumps. She’s pushing hopefully at garden walls, street lights, ventilation grilles on the side of buildings – anything that catches the eye of a resourceful toddler, raised in a time when washing away the virus is as natural a part of life as nap time. A video of her doing it racked up millions of views on social media this week because it’s both hilarious and sweet; she’s clearly delighted with herself for being able to copy what the grownups do. But it’s oddly poignant too.
A year into this pandemic, there are babies now learning to walk and talk who have never known anything but life under the shadow of Covid, and preschoolers who can barely remember a world before it. Doctors’ children have had to learn not to touch Mummy when she gets in from work, until she’s had a shower to wash off any last possible trace of danger. Thanks to popular toddler demand, you can now buy masks for dolls.
It’s perfectly normal for kids to reflect what’s happening around them by playing quarantine with stuffed animals, but normal too for adults to wonder uncomfortably whether all this leaves a lasting mark. How much will it matter in years to come that, as the minister for loneliness Diana Barran recently put it, there are toddlers being raised by shielding parents who have never had a playdate? Will Covid babies grow up solitary creatures, used to entertaining themselves, or warier of the strangers they so rarely meet and interact with? Taking a tiny bundle out in public used to mean an endless succession of random older women cooing over the pram, or strangers pulling faces to entertain a bored baby in a checkout queue. But now passersby daren’t get close, and other shoppers are hidden behind masks.
This week MPs were presented with some early findings from a project led by the First 1001 Days Movement, an alliance of early-years charities and professionals, tracking the lives of under-twos growing up through a pandemic. A survey of children’s service providers it commissioned found 98% thought the babies and toddlers they worked with had been affected by higher parental stress and anxiety, while 92% had seen fearful families effectively cutting themselves off from the outside world, skipping routine appointments or not wanting to leave the house. Nine in 10 had observed children being played with less, or being less active. Heartbreakingly, more than a quarter said lockdown left the children they worked with more exposed to domestic conflict, abuse or neglect.
And while cocooning through lockdown with a new baby will have been blissful for some, the researchers noted that by the summer, GPs were experiencing a sharp rise in struggling new parents needing help. While babies in better-off families may have flourished with everyone stuck at home, enjoying more of their parents’ time and attention than usual, it’s a different story for those born into households on the edge. Parents rightly worry about the mental health of teenagers in a pandemic, only too acutely aware that life is passing them by. But do babies and toddlers suffer in a different way from absorbing adult fears and anxieties, without ever understanding the reasons for them?
Ministers’ growing willingness to listen to lobbying from new mothers both in and out of parliament has thankfully made this lockdown kinder than the first. At least now in some parts of the UK you can push the pram around the park with a friend; the playgrounds aren’t padlocked, and nurseries stayed open to all comers in January when schools did not. Though some worry about how sustainable that is, with serious outbreaks in some London childcare settings, the legacy of nurseries closing in the first lockdown was some four-year-olds arriving in school last September still in nappies, and unable to use cutlery.
Now it’s time for a much bigger leap of imagination. When lockdown lifts, we’ll need a concerted national effort both to compensate for the support under-fives have missed and to understand how their strange early experiences will shape them as they grow. But it needs to focus on the children at the sharp end, the ones whose families have struggled most through the pandemic. This catch-up programme might sound uncannily like the much-missed Sure Start, founded by the Blair government to give under-fives a better start in life. But a better name would be Start Over: a way of helping tiny children leave this anxious, lonely time behind them. Covid babies don’t have to be the unlucky generation, still less scarred for life. But even the most resourceful of toddlers can’t do everything all by herself.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist