Children’s Aid workers in Ottawa are sounding the alarm over an increase in infants being treated in hospital for head injuries in the last year — a worrying trend that has also been observed in other parts of the country.
The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) said there has been a “disturbing trend” since September of a rise in infants under the age of one presenting to hospitals with fractures and head trauma, both of which are signs of maltreatment. The trend, experts say, may be tied to regions across Canada that have been harder hit by COVID-19.
CHEO has seen 20 babies with serious head injuries since September, compared to eight in the same time-frame in pre-pandemic 2019.
Dr. Michelle Ward, a pediatrician at CHEO and the hospital’s medical director for child and youth protection, said this rise in infant head injuries is unlike anything she has seen in her 16 years at the children’s hospital.
“When I saw that our numbers had more than doubled over this time period, I was worried about where we were headed,” Ward said. “Twenty infants in our region with serious injuries is not normal for us to see.”
“Being isolated at home with a small baby that requires 24/7 care at the best of times is hard, and right now it’s even harder.”
Ward said the trend points to unprecedented stress parents of young infants have been feeling during the pandemic, as they’ve been unable to rely on friends and grandparents for support in caring for their children. Others, she said, are feeling the strain of job losses or burnout, which are also risk factors for child abuse.
“Being isolated at home with a small baby that requires 24/7 care at the best of times is hard, and right now it’s even harder,” Ward said.
Two-thirds of the injuries the hospital has treated have been serious, Ward added, causing internal bleeding which could permanently impact a child’s vision or brain development. In some cases, Children’s aid investigators have been notified and child welfare agencies have had to intervene.
“Some of those kids are severely affected, and might go on to need care” for a variety of complications, Ward added.
Speaking to colleagues in other parts of the country, Ward said some have noticed a similar trend, namely in Alberta and in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The trend hasn’t been observed in the Maritimes, however, leading Ward to draw a link between places that have been harder hit by COVID-19 and the rise in infant injuries as a result.
Ward pointed to data out of the United Kingdom that suggests a link between greater COVID-19-related restrictions and higher instances of child abuse.
More concrete data isn’t available in Canada yet, but “on the surface,” Ward said a similar trend is materializing closer to home, where places with tougher COVID-19 restrictions are seeing a rise in infants with head injuries and symptoms of maltreatment.
Ward said she hopes the trend is only a temporary spike, but it remains a worrying increase due to the long-term consequences for the injured infants.
It is why she is urging parents to have a care plan in place for their child should they need a break, including reaching out to local public health units who can offer in-home nursing support. Ward also suggested calling a friend who may safely be able to walk the infant in a carriage if parents need a break.
Ward also urged policy-makers to identify parents with small infants at home as a high-risk group during the pandemic that need specialized attention, and think about what can be done to support them.
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.
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