By Madeleine Heffernan
Some young children have spent half of their lives in lockdown.Credit: Illustration: Aresna Villanueva
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Melbourne toddler Mylah Dovaston-Zietara had spent about half of her life going in and out of lockdown by the time she finally experienced the joys of a supermarket.
“I always remember when I took her to the shops and her face lit up, and I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I haven’t taken her food shopping’, because you weren’t allowed to,” her mother Kylie Dovaston says. “She was trying to eat all the food and touch it.”
Dovaston, a nurse and single mother, worked hard to make the pandemic as pleasant as possible for Mylah and her older brother Harry. The family got a puppy and visited every park in their five-kilometre zone.
But like all Victorians, Dovaston wonders how those 19 months of on-off lockdowns affected children. “I think lockdown kids have a bit more anxiety with people as they spent a lot of their time at home,” she says.
Mylah, who is now five, is a bit shy in groups and can struggle with deciphering facial expressions. “I still have to try and teach her a lot of basic skills – ‘you have to say hello and goodbye to people’ – because she didn’t grow up around that basic etiquette,” Dovaston says. “But she’s getting there with time; she just needs a bit of encouragement and support.”
Melbourne preschooler Mylah Dovaston-Zietara with her mother Kylie Dovaston. Credit: Joe Armao
The Age is examining how babies, toddlers and preschoolers who lived with tight pandemic restrictions are faring, as part of a wider series on the developmental, physical, academic and mental wellbeing of children and young people. It is timed with the two-year anniversary of the end of Victoria’s lockdowns.
A study of this age group by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found a lack of attendance at early learning could have lasting effects, particularly for disadvantaged children, who tend to start school behind and not catch up. And research from Turkey shows babies born over this period, who are now toddlers and pre-schoolers, have not been as badly affected as their mothers may have been.
Youngest Victorians on track
The good news is that young Victorian children generally rate highly for physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge.
The Australian Early Development Census, a national measurement of children’s development, finds Victorian children rank above or at the national average in all five domains. Broadly speaking, four in five young Victorians are on track developmentally.
Meanwhile, the Victorian government’s free kinder program for three and four-year olds has been dubbed the biggest game-changer in Australian education in the past 20 to 30 years, particularly for vulnerable children who are less likely to attend preschool.
Professor Jim Watterston, dean of the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education, predicts free kinder will be the “biggest influence on school improvement that we will have in decades”.
Participation in high-quality early learning has a positive effect on children’s wellbeing, learning and development, the OECD says.
Young lives disrupted
The COVID lockdowns caused unprecedented disruption to the lives of young Victorians.
For babies, toddlers and preschoolers, the stay-at-home orders took place while their brains were developing connections faster than at any other time in their lives.
“The first five years of a child’s life are critical for laying the foundations for healthy development. Adverse events or circumstances that occur during these years can have a significant impact on children’s health and developmental outcomes,” the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute says.
Shortly after lockdowns ended, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute warned the COVID response had affected young children’s sense of predictability and security.
“Australian and international studies suggest that public health measures and their impact on family dynamics have led to the following issues for children [aged] zero to five years: worsening behaviour and mood; increased clinginess, anxiety and levels of stress,” it said.
Other impacts included increased hyperactivity and inattention, increased abuse and neglect, decreased physical activity and increased screen time, and possible disruptions to the length and quality of sleep.
Last year, the Royal Children’s Hospital’s national child health poll found 19 per cent of Victorian parents reported the pandemic had hurt the mental health of their children aged under five.
All children had a greater desire for peer interaction following lockdowns, Laureate Professor Marilyn Fleer’s research found.Credit: Justin McManus
Early childhood expert, Monash Laureate Professor Marilyn Fleer, says children born in COVID, who are now in kinder, are displaying some unusual behaviour because of missing out on socialising during lockdowns, such as bringing dummies to kinder, having trouble with toilet training, having a strong interest in screens and poor core strength.
“It’s getting better, but educators are still worried,” says Fleer.
She says teachers are trying a variety of methods to help preschoolers improve their social, emotional and physical skills, such as putting them in small groups, singing in large groups, and being flexible with mealtimes.
Fleer advises parents concerned about their children’s development to read to them, cuddle them, chat to their educators, talk about feelings, stay calm, encourage children to ask for help, provide suggestions to problems, and let children help around the house to boost their independence and confidence.
Paediatrician Professor Sharon Goldfield says the slump in early learning attendance during lockdowns could have significant implications for child development, particularly for children from vulnerable backgrounds.
“There are probably latent effects that we’re not measuring and don’t understand,” says Goldfield, who is director of the Centre for Community Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Still, Goldfeld believes young children are probably more resilient than initially thought, similar to a Spanish study which found mental health problems among children aged four to 14 had risen during the pandemic and then recovered.
Research published in the Journal of Paediatric and Child Health found women with children aged three to four during Melbourne lockdowns had higher levels of depression than mothers pre-pandemic. Encouragingly, their offspring showed no greater signs of mental health symptoms or disorder, and there was no difference in parenting stress.
Paediatrician Sharon Goldfeld believes there’s more resilience among young people post-COVID than initially thought.Credit: Chris Hopkins
We’ll find out more about the long-term effects of lockdowns on the youngest Victorians from a study of more than 100,000 babies and their parents. The study, GenV, is looking at the health and wellbeing of children born between late 2020 and October this year – a 34-month window in which there were profound changes to everything from social activity, work, physical activity, income, healthcare, noise levels and pollution.
“What we’ll be able to do eventually is look at how different COVID policies had different impacts for kids and their parents,” says Melissa Wake, paediatrician and scientific director of GenV, which is led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
Previous birth cohort studies have shown the effects of a global shock live on for decades, and can be passed onto future generations. Children who were in utero during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 grew up to weigh more, have higher levels of cholesterol and die younger. Another birth cohort study of Irish children during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis found it had a “broadly negative but diverse effect on individuals and families”.
Wake says the impacts of such disruptions can be both good and bad. “For example, being exposed to lower levels of pollution during pregnancy and the newborn period could enhance children’s health,” she says.
Lockdown babies thrive
Some of the youngest Victorians were born in the pandemic, but they have blossomed since. Melbourne couple Anthea and Con Aravanis believe they were more affected by the pandemic than their young son, Sebastian. The couple found IVF, pregnancy and early parenthood during COVID isolating.
Anthea and Con Aravanis, with son Sebastian, say pregnancy and early parenthood was challenging during COVID. Credit: Justin McManus
Breastfeeding and birth classes were online. Sebastian was small throughout the pregnancy and Con was not allowed to attend medical appointments.
“We felt Sebastian was struggling to develop, so the scans were an important part of his progress, and not being able to go to them was horrible,” says Con.
When Sebastian was born in April 2022, visitors to both the hospital and home were restricted, which devastated Con, whose family loves welcoming newborns.
Anthea says Sebastian is a social kid. “He likes being around people, and we do swimming lessons and library story time, so I think we are quite fortunate. It’s really just the pregnancy that we were affected.”
If you or anyone you know needs support call Kidshelpline 1800 55 1800, Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
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