Parenting Resource

Baby Talks: Parent Coronavirus Questions Answered

En español Mar 30, 2020

We’re all figuring out how to balance our different roles and demands right now, including our most important one—mom or dad. ZERO TO THREE parenting experts address common parent questions and concerns during this challenging time.

Here is your one-stop shop for parenting questions related to sheltering-in-place and coronavirus. Have a question? Send it to us in a direct message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Interested in what other parents are asking? Read on, and remember that we’re all doing our best to figure things out. There’s no “right” answers right now—and it’s all about trial and error and finding what works for your family. Use these Q&As to help inform your own parenting decisions, while we all cope with coronavirus and the changes it’s meant for our families and communities.

Will my child be behind in their social skills due to social distancing?

Q: Rules about staying home and social distancing kicked in just as my toddler turned two and was about to start a local preschool program. This feels like the worst possible time for us to be stuck at home—he’s full of energy and fascinated by his peers. I’m worried that he is going to be behind in his social skills once we are (finally) back to regular life and his pre-k program re-opens.

A: Having a chance to learn and practice social skills with peers—sharing, turn-taking, resolving conflict, and more—is definitely important for young children. The more experience they have interacting with peers, the more they learn about how to get along with others.

But—developing social skills is a process that takes time and experience. Your son will learn to take turns and share over a number of years, as he practices handling these challenges over and over. Putting a pause on peer interactions for a few months will not put him behind. In the meantime, you can coach him to practice new social-emotional skills. For example, opportunities to share and take turns happen naturally throughout the day. Teach simple language that will be useful later in peer play: My turn, Want to play?, Can I share? You can also role model self-regulation and other social skills: I am so frustrated. I think I’ll take a deep breath to calm myself down. Share children’s books that address social-emotional themes, like the ones on ZERO TO THREE’s booklist. Build on these stories in pretend play to help him practice the language and skills to handle peer situations when he does encounter them.

Finally, while it’s not the same as real-life playtime, your toddler may enjoy video-chat with other children his age. This gives him a chance to practice simple greetings and questions with a friend. You can support these interactions by suggesting songs to sing together or playing the toddler game of “I’ll show you my toy, now you show me yours.” They can even play with cars or other toys “together,” each on their side of the screen.

The short answer is: The kids will be alright. While these days are long and the weeks ahead are unsure, your toddler is learning and practicing social skills through everyday routines with you. When the time comes to release them into the world of their peers, they’ll be ready.

How do I encourage independent play?

Q: I know it would be ideal if we could spend our time at home due to coronavirus playing with our children all the time, but it’s just not possible. How do I get my little ones to play on their own for a little while when I need do other things (work/prepare food/etc.)?

A: This is a great question and something that almost every parent is wondering about right now! Let’s start with what to expect when it comes to attention span in the early years. Spoiler: It’s not long. By one year, children have an attention span of 1-3 minutes. By age two, toddlers’ attention span has grown to about 5-6 minutes. Three-year-olds can attend for up to 8 minutes and 4s up to about 10 minutes.

So—while we can help children engage in independent play, it’s important to hold the right expectations about how long young children can focus. The role of a parent in these early years is to support a child’s growing ability to extend their attention.

How to introduce more independent play? First, gather some engaging toys or materials for your child to explore. Objects that can be used many different ways during play often work better than a toy that only does one thing. (For example, children can quickly tire of a toy where they press a button and it plays a song.) Keep your selections age-appropriate—some items to consider are blocks, art materials (crayons, paper), housekeeping props and dolls/stuffed animals, balls and baskets, and interesting “stuff” like egg cartons, masking tape, paper towel and toilet paper tubes, pinecones, shells, and more. Toddlers who are enjoying pretend play might like a pad, pens, clipboard, and other “work” items. (My friend gave her toddler a shoebox with ‘buttons’ she had drawn with marker. He happily tapped on this “keyboard” while she typed on hers.)

Introduce the play items and let your child take the lead. Ask what you should do or how your child would like to play. Look to see how your child creates opportunities to pretend, combine, sort, match, and construct. As your child becomes engaged in play, phase yourself out. Take less of an active role and sit back and watch. If your child checks in, comment on their play, “I saw you line all the pinecones up on the floor. It was a long line.”

Then move to your own activity. Stay close by because your child will loop back to you when they want to check in (offer a hug/kiss), want your attention (comment on their play), or have run out of ideas of what to do. In that case, you may want to offer an additional prop, object or material to add to their exploration. For example, you might offer dried pasta for them to stir, pour, and transfer using plastic containers and spoons. If they aren’t sure how to proceed in their play, you can also suggest two choices: “Hmm, do you think your baby needs a bath or wants to eat pretend ice cream now?” Strategies like these help children extend their attention by returning to the play again with a new focus.

Over time, children will need less support with free play—and, eventually, we’ll all find a “new normal” in these daily routines.

How should I address screen time?

Q: What should we do about screen time rules while we’re sheltering-in-place? I’ve got to work to do (and sometimes I just need a break). As a result, my toddlers are on screens more than usual.

A: I reached out to my co-authors of ZERO TO THREE’s Screen Sense materials—Rachel Barr, PhD from Georgetown University and Elisabeth McClure, PhD of the LEGO Foundation—about your question. Given the many stressors and demands that parents are facing right now, here are some guiding thoughts on managing screen time during periods of work-at-home and shelter-in-place:

  • Encourage video chat. Video chat helps young children—even babies—remember and build relationships with family members.
  • Choose educational programming. These are stressful times. Don’t feel bad about using screens more than usual. Choose age-appropriate, educational programs (like those on PBS) if you opt to allow extra screen time.
  • When you can, watch programs or play video games/apps with your child. Talk about what’s happening on screen. Afterward, use real-world playtime to extend the learning from screens—counting, matching, pretend play, and more.
  • Make sure children have access to a balanced “activity diet.” While they may be engaged with screens more than usual, it’s still important for toddlers to have a mix of activities across the day, including free play, story/book time, art activities, and active play.

How can I manage screen time for two children of different ages and needs?

Q: My three-year-old is getting more screen time than usual and as a result, my 12-month-old is often in the room and getting more TV in the background too. We try to separate them when my daughter is watching but it’s not always successful (or possible!). Is this something we should be worried about?

A: These are unusual times and most (if not all) of our family rules and routines are a little out of whack. The research is pretty clear that background media can interrupt the play of young children, decrease parent-child interactions, and interfere with learning. But we all live in reality here. Sometimes media time is parents’ only chance to focus on other responsibilities.

The first thing to remember is that sheltering-in-place is not expected to be a long-term situation. The negative child outcomes we see for background TV exposure is in the context of long-term, extensive exposure, not the short-term weeks or months that we’re experiencing now. Secondly, you are dealing with the reality of having two children. When I had a similar concern recently, my husband responded, “What do you want me to do—put Number 2 in a box?” We do not recommend boxing our younger sibs! But if it’s possible to set little ones up with some quiet play near us (while our older one has screen time separately), that’s ideal. Allowing your older sibling to watch on a tablet limits your younger child’s access to the screen as well.

Finally, keep in mind this dilemma is one that every parent of two or more children deals with at some point. Younger children tend to do activities earlier than their older siblings did, just by virtue of being there. So, try to choose a screen experience that is high quality, educational content (check out PBS’ offerings) and also select programs that appeal to a wide range of ages—such as Blue’s Clues, Kipper, Curious George, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

We’re all figuring out how to balance our different roles and demands right now, including our most important one—mom or dad. You’re asking all the right questions and the answer is really about balance and making sure everyone is getting their needs met (including grown-ups!).

For babies under 6 months of age, what are the long-term effects of social distancing?

Q: As a home visitor, I am asked by parents who have babies under 6 months of age what the long-term effects of social distancing are. Will babies’ social emotional development be affected with reduced face to face interactions? Will their ability to interact with people after isolation is lifted be altered or impaired?

A: Families hopefully have been able to stay together through the stay-at-home and social distancing orders. This means young children will be able to stay close to their primary caregiver. If this happens, and those caregivers are able to provide a secure base, with attuned and responsive care, there should not be a long term impact to social distancing.

However, for some of our families, they have made the decision to stay away from their child due to their essential work and their risk of exposure to COVID-19. For these families, we can offer guidance on staying connected to their child even though they physically are apart. We know from our military families and their frequent deployments away from home that babies will be fine if caregivers are taking steps to keep the connection strong. We have developed some guidance to help support families think about steps they can take if they must be separated from their child.

As a home visitor, you also know we are concerned about those families who are having difficulty creating a safe and secure place for their child. We know early child education and home visiting services help to promote positive parenting. What happens to these at risk families when those visits stop, or when there is no respite provided through early childhood education services? Parents who feel socially isolated and stressed may not be able to provide the needed secure base for their child. This is a concern. We encourage professionals like yourself to stay in contact with your families through telehealth. Help families think out of the box about getting the support they need, especially those protective and promotive factors usually available. Can families join virtual parent coffee hours to get some needed support? Can you encourage using smart phone technology to have grandpa or Auntie read for 10 minutes to a toddler to give that single parent a short break? Can we make sure there is no food insecurity that can heighten family’s stress? The work you do as a home visitor is so important in protecting our most vulnerable families. For this, we say thank you for your work; you are making a difference.

How can I work with my partner to manage challenging behavior in my older toddler?

Q: I always knew my husband and I aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to how to react to problematic behavior from our older toddler. But I’m recognizing we need some extensive help in getting us all on the same page (like some parent coaching). Another way of phrasing it: Help! So far this week my kid has drawn on the wall, deliberately spilled his milk, and thrown things. Are there any resources you can point us to that can help us figure out a plan that may work?

A: Staying at home probably emphasizes the different approaches you and your husband have in dealing with your child’s challenging behavior. We recommend starting by taking a deep breath, and know that you will get through this!

Once you know you are as calm as you can be (considering our current circumstance), consider things from your toddler’s point of view. Things right now are so confusing, and a bit overwhelming for adults; imagine a young child trying to make sense of this! Children can pick up on your tension, your worry. However, they don’t have the ability to process it. Instead, they show you their worry and concern by drawing negative attention to themselves.

The part of the brain that allows grownups to stop and think about the consequence of our actions, isn’t fully developed yet in a toddler. They are impulsive and full of emotions. Throwing things, drawing on walls, going back to earlier behaviors—these are all ways our young children tell us, ”things are so different– I don’t feel safe right now! I need you to notice me.” Take a look at our Positive Parenting resources, it may help you and your husband to find common ground in your approach to parenting your toddler. For parenting coaches in your area, you can contact your state’s alliance for infant mental health for practitioners in your area, or your state’s 211 information service. Your child care provider may also have suggestions for parenting classes, or your local child care resource and referral agency.

How can parents cope with potential exposure to COVID-19 while still being present for their family?

Q: I am a Home Visitor and I am supporting a family who is transitioning back to work after their baby was born 2 months ago. They are both front line workers and are wondering how to cope with their potential exposure to COVID-19 and all of the stress of that, whilst still being present for their child.

A: What a tough time for both of these parents. In terms of limiting the baby’s potential exposure to coronavirus, part of their back-to-work preparations should be a consultation with their child’s health care provider to discuss infection control protocols and what symptoms to monitor in young babies. Their other, equally important question is how to remain present and connected with their baby during such an intensely stressful time—especially given their front-line roles. Here are some ideas they might want to try, which can help to reduce their own (justified!) anxieties but also provide their new family with a soothing time for connection:

  • Create routines that nurture the whole family. We often talk about how bedtime and mealtime routines help children feel safe, organized, and secure. But routines help us feel that way too! Partner with parents on developing a “home from work” routine that they might want to try – perhaps sharing a story with their little one, or playtime on the floor to ease back into family life after work. Bedtime routines, with lights dimmed and soft music, are also a great opportunity to connect and decompress.

  • Limit news media. While many of us feel unspoken pressure to check in with news constantly, the truth is that reading the news can often spark additional anxieties or a sense of powerlessness. Consider limiting news to once or twice a day only, and not close to bedtime. Also, keep the television off when baby is present (background television can reduce the quality of parent-child interactions and interfere with children’s learning). Plus, even very young children pick up on the tension we feel from watching or reading tough news.

  • Play “find five things.” This is a mindfulness activity that helps us focus on the present moment. Ask parents to look—really look—at their baby and find five special details about him or her: the fold of her chubby baby belly, the curve of her ear, the shape of her big toe. This moment of dedicated attention will delight baby and help ground parents in this shared relationship.

  • Copy baby. This activity invites parents connect with their baby through “back and forth” interactions. When baby is calm and happy, ask a parent to sit with her facing them. Ask them to pause and make eye contact. As she blinks, sticks her tongue out, gazes, or moves her arms, parents can gently imitate those gestures and movements. Encourage them to continue this “copy me” game until baby has tired of it—looks away or starts to get fussy. These quiet moments of being in tune with their baby can be soothing to both parents and their little one.

  • Share music. Music is comforting for many reasons, one of them being the consistent, predictable pattern of rhythm and lyrics. Encourage parents to hold baby and share their favorite songs—from the radio, from their childhood, from their home country. Coming together with touch and voice is a great way of reducing stress and increasing a sense of family connection.

  • Take care of themselves. I almost didn’t suggest self-care in my response to this question—here we have two new parents, during shelter-in-place with distancing restrictions, and returning to full-time, front-line work. But the truth is that self-care is more important than ever. We’re not talking a day at the spa, which is unrealistic for most new parents and impossible right now. But co-parents would benefit from talking about what they need to feel centered and calm. Is it 10 minutes alone before bed? Is it taking a long, hot, uninterrupted-by-baby shower? Is it going for a run each morning? Negotiating how they will each care for themselves, for each other, and how they will come together to nurture their family, is an important part of the transition to parenthood—pandemic or not.

Is it safe to leave home? What will be okay to take my toddler to and what isn’t?

Q: As we think about opening up our country again and ending some of the “shelter in place” guidelines, I find myself worrying. Is it safe to leave home? What will be okay to take my toddler to and what isn’t? How will I know?

A: Every day it seems like we are hearing something new about COVID-19. As we imagine returning to life as normal with errands, play dates, and visits with family, parents across the country share similar worries about their children’s health and safety. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You’re right to feel worried and anxious. Try not to be hard on yourself. These are uncertain times, and it’s perfectly normal to have these feelings. For example, you might feel pressure from loved ones to bring baby for “just a quick visit” once stay-at-home orders start to lift. It’s okay to say no to something that doesn’t feel safe to you.
  • Make informed decisions. Stay informed about current health recommendations from trusted sources like your local and state government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also go to your child’s health care provider with questions. They can guide your decision-making with science-based information.
  • Take care to avoid scary talk around little ones. While you may be concerned about the return to child care, dealing with crowds at the park, or visiting family, try not to share those worries in front of your children. Although they might be good at hiding it, children are always listening to us. Overhearing adult conversations about COVID-19 can make things harder on young children. When they hear words they don’t understand or sense their parents’ worries, they feel worried too. Make sure grown-up conversations about COVID-19 are kept private. Answer your child’s questions directly and as simply as possible, based on their developmental age.
  • Share new rules and practices without communicating fear. It’s possible that as communities re-open, there may be new practices we use to keep everyone healthy. For example, we may need to teach children new ways of greeting friends without giving hugs, continue the emphasis on hand-washing, or teach safe ways of coughing and sneezing. Be matter-of-fact about these new rules, be a good role model yourself, and stay patient. Young children will need a lot of repetition and practice before they remember these rules consistently.
  • You’re important too. It’s easy to focus on everything but ourselves when life gets crazy. But eventually the stress we’re under may start to impact how we care for our kids. That’s why it’s important to find a little time each day to do something that feels good—a workout, a book, or even binging a great show after the kids are in bed. When you feel calmer, your whole family feels calmer. But it’s also possible that feelings of depression or anxiety are starting to get in the way of your daily life. If you’re struggling, reach out to your health care provider for help. You deserve good health and a sense of well-being.

We’re all a little unsure about what it will mean to re-open our communities. Feeling anxious about taking your child to a playground, traveling, or going to public places is a normal reaction to COVID-19. Making thoughtful decisions—using the best information you have access to—gives you the opportunity to make choices that meet your family’s needs. That’s the power of positive parenting.

Looking for more information? Visit zerotothree.org/coronavirus for our latest resources and updates for families.

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