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The early results are the first to come from a new study investigating family life and early child development during the COVID-19 crisis, run by a team of researchers from 5 leading UK universities and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.

Over 500 parents from across the UK of children under three years have taken part so far in the Social Distancing and Development Study (SDDS). Parents were asked about time spent doing enriching activities with their child, and amount of screen time, before and during lockdown. Enriching activities included reading, playing, singing, one-to-one conversations, cooking, arts and crafts, exercise, gardening and shared outdoors time.

University of Oxford researcher, Alex Hendry, who led the first report to come out of the study said, 

Children depend on high-quality interactions to support all aspects of their development. It is heartening to see that most families have been managing to find time to talk, read and play with their babies during this critical time, even amongst everything else going on. But from what parents are telling us, it is clear that during lockdown some babies have been missing out.

Ninety per cent of families reported an increase in enriching activities during lockdown, but increases were not spread equally across families. During lockdown – but not before lockdown – disadvantaged parents (lower income, education, occupational status and/or living in a deprived neighbourhood) were less likely to engage in enriching activities. In particular, disadvantaged families spent less time doing activities that require outdoor space and access to books.

Seventy-five per cent of parents reported that during lockdown their children spent more time than usual watching TV or playing with a tablet. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly likely to have high daily screen use.

Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation, added, “Evidence shows us that what happens in the first 1001 days, from pregnancy, lays the foundations for later development. Therefore the impact of inequitable experiences during the pandemic may have lasting effects without immediate action to support families. This is why we are calling for babies and young children to be central to the COVID-19 recovery efforts. We are calling for a one-off Baby Boost, a catch-up fund to enable local services to support families who have had a baby during or close to Lockdown. There have been catch-up funds for school age children, but this research reinforces that young children need support too.”

Additional information

The Social Distancing and Development Study is investigating the impact of social distancing and lockdown on infants’ cognitive development, sleep, social interactions, screen-use and time spent outdoors. The research aims to inform policy makers on how to reduce further impact on children’s development and identify the best ways to support families as the country moves through the crisis.

The study, which has been undertaken by Oxford Brookes University researcher Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez in collaboration with Alexandra Hendry at University of Oxford, Catherine Davies at the University of Leeds, Theodora Gliga at the University of East Anglia, and Michelle McGillion at the University of Warwick and funded by UK Research and Innovation, will continue until November 2021.

This research is supported through UKRI COVID-19 funding

The Social Distancing and Development Study is part of a wider project investigating the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns on language development in different countries, led by Julien Mayor and Natalia Kartushina from the University of Oslo.