The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening American babies’ and toddlers’ chances at a healthy start in life in many ways that have nothing to do with whether they directly catch the virus, according to a sweeping new report from the nonprofit early childhood advocacy group Zero to Three.
The group warns that many families are faring worse as a result of the pandemic, and that babies and toddlers could feel the impact for years to come — even after the pandemic slowly creeps toward an end.
“We certainly hope things are getting better,” Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy with the Zero to Three Policy Center, told HuffPost. “But it takes a while to dig out from such great hardship. And the emotional distress can take a while to get over as well.”
Here are some of the primary ways the pandemic has taken a toll on the health and well-being of American babies and toddlers, as well as their families.
COVID-19 has disrupted essential preventive care.
For several months early in the pandemic, non-coronavirus-related medical visits largely ground to a halt.
But the new report from Zero to Three, which relied in part on data from the University of Oregon’s Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development in Early Childhood (RAPID-EC) project, suggests that parents did not necessarily start taking their children in for visits (or video consultations) as the months wore on.
Nearly 38% of families with toddlers or babies missed a well-baby or well-child visit in 2020 — a rate that is three times higher than it was before the pandemic.
Unfortunately, those visits really are essential. They’re when babies are vaccinated against highly contagious diseases, like the measles and whopping cough. They’re also when pediatricians check if babies’ weight gain and growth are on track during a period of major change and development.
“We know there has been a drop in well-child visits and a drop in vaccinations, and these were more prominent in families with low income and families of color,” said Cole.
Food insecurity has increased even more for families.
The new report really highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic widened existing gaps. It notes, for example, that more than half of families considered low-income prior to the pandemic lost even more income during the past year. Higher-income families also experienced income loss, but at lower levels.
And as families that were already in financially precarious situations grappled with income loss, many found it difficult to cover basic needs, such as the full amount of their rent or mortgages, or their utilities.
Food insecurity also soared. Even before the pandemic, families with young babies and toddlers were 1.5 times more likely than those with no children to be experiencing food insecurity — meaning they lacked consistent access to sufficient food.
“The uptick in unemployment and loss of free food streams such as public-school meals has only exacerbated this existing inequality,” the report says, adding that food insecurity hit low-income families and families of color particularly hard.
Pre-coronavirus, roughly 30% of families with household incomes 200% below the federal poverty level were food insecure; during COVID-19, roughly 45% of those families were struggling to consistently have enough food to eat.
And that takes a toll on children, particularly over time. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says: “Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence.”
“There’s this chain reaction, which leads to family distress and greater parental distress,” echoed Cole. “That gets picked up and absorbed by children.”
Early learning has taken a hit.
Experts have long agreed that the period from birth to kindergarten is when children develop crucial social and emotional skills that help lay a strong foundation for them for life.
But COVID-19 “upended the fragile early learning system, resulting in care settings becoming even more scarce and unaffordable when families looked to return their children to these programs,” the report warns.
Before the pandemic, more than half of the families surveyed sent their kids to day cares; by May 2020, that had dropped to less than 30%.
That is not to suggest that sending young children to day care is somehow necessary for them developmentally, but it does raise concerns about the possible trickle-down effect. Parents unable to find affordable, reliable child care may be unable to work. They might also be coping with more stress, which in turn could make them less likely to really play and interact with their babies — through no fault of their own.
“When parents are taking care of older children, having to do remote learning, worrying about trying to pay the bills, they may not be as emotionally present for their young children,” Cole said. “So it’s just a situation that is not the healthiest for our babies going forward.”
The report also found that rates of developmental screening for babies and toddlers dipped during the pandemic, which could indicate that fewer families have been able to connect their children with early intervention services.
But parents are still an effective “buffer.”
Ultimately, the report is aimed at changing policy because many of these factors are entrenched, nationwide problems that require systemic interventions, like paid family leave and a national child care system that is accessible to all working parents.
But Cole noted that there is still plenty that parents can do to fight for their children, and the survey also notes how parents can boost bonding and early childhood development at home by reading and singing to their children every day, for example.
In other words, the new report both shows how difficult the past year has been on American families and their young children and highlights the pressing need for greater outside support. It also serves as a reminder of how much parents can do for their children simply by engaging with them.
“I wouldn’t want readers to think that this is hopeless, because obviously parents are very strong buffers for young children,” Cole said. “But because of the material hardships, families are under great distress, and that gets transmitted to babies.”