It might not be the Mother’s Day present you’d have dreamed of receiving a few short weeks ago, but in lieu of the perhaps more traditional flowers or chocolates, here we have a guide for surviving the coming weeks and months written by the ever-wonderful Motherkind Grandmothers, Dr Guin Webster and Dr Becca Knowles Bevis, together with their colleague Dr Jacinta Cordwell. We hope that you will find it useful!
Coping with social distancing and self-isolation: suggestions and resources for families with babies and young children
Humans are social creatures and babies learn about being human by watching and participating in social interactions. So it’s normal that being stuck at home with a baby or young child feels difficult. Be patient with yourself and your family: it takes several days to adapt to a new situation, but things will start to feel better once you establish some new rhythms for the day that work with how things are now. Try to let go of the feeling that you have to stick to the same plan each day: when things are uncertain, flexibility is your friend.
Many of these suggestions come from research about how astronauts and Antarctic explorers cope in extreme environments. While they didn’t have colicky babies or tantruming toddlers to contend with, they do know a thing or two about being cooped up with other people’s annoying habits.
We are in an unprecedented situation globally, and it’s normal to feel anxious about it. Humans have evolved to feel anxious about threats to our usual way of life: in fact, this sensitivity to perceived threats is what has enabled our species to survive and thrive so successfully over thousands of years. That doesn’t mean that we’re stuck with our anxiety though, and there are things we can do that help.
It’s worth saying that anxiety sometimes comes out as irritation and anger. Our threat systems are simple, and the same “switch” activates all the different emotions on the fight-flight-freeze spectrum, which include fear, irritation, frustration, anger, and even disgust. When we perceive a threat, our brain automatically mobilises the all-important flight or fight response – and if you’re stuck indoors or feeling trapped, it makes sense that your brain might take the fight route, which can result in feeling more short-tempered than usual. Recognising this reaction as anxiety and taking steps to soothe it can help. Because of how our brains have evolved, we can also experience our own thoughts and emotions as threats, so a feeling or worry might trigger the fight-flight response in the same way that a hungry T-rex or a neighbour stealing our parking spot does.
When we’re feeling anxious, it’s an instinctive and understandable reaction to zoom in on our own needs, stockpiling the pasta and barricading the door. But this kind of tunnel vision keeps us locked in our anxious world, and a powerful antidote is to refocus on how we can help others in our community. There are many ways to help and many people who need it. Start with your family, your neighbours, and your existing community groups, then if you have time and energy to spare, sign up with Oxford Hub’s community response here.
I see you baby
Spending time online will be a very important way of maintaining social contact and reducing the sense of social isolation. Consider the ways you do this that can involve your baby when they are awake and give them a sense of participating in “village life” – many babies are lulled by the chatter of people in the background. For instance, using video calling rather than text messaging will help your baby join in the social interaction. When you’re silently messaging on your phone, this can absorb your attention, but your baby gains very few social cues to understand what you are participating in and doesn’t have the same opportunity to experience the rhythm of social conversation. You might also find real benefits from live face-to-face interaction compared to text messaging: seeing people’s faces, especially smiles, gives us very powerful cues that we are safe and part of a social tribe.
While ways to connect with others online will become as essential as loo roll to see us through this, not all time spent online is helpful. In particular, it’s a good idea to ration your news consumption to certain times of the day rather than continually refreshing the feed. You should also make sure you’re sticking to certain trusted and reliable sources of information and guidance, e.g. the UK government website and the WHO. Check in with yourself when on social media: are you feeling warm and fuzzy, uplifted and connected? Or are you feeling tense and anxious? You know what to do! If it’s fuelling anxiety, mute updates, set notifications to silent, and leave or temporarily unfollow anything that’s not helping.
If your baby has regular naps, consider earmarking at least one of these for time spent offline doing something you enjoy: sleeping, reading a book, listening to music, making something pretty, stretching, baking, etc.
I got rhythm
It can be a very unsettling feeling when normal routines aren’t possible. It helps to create a flexible rhythm or pattern for the day, with a backbone created by meals, naps, time outside, household tasks, etc. Take care of the basics – regular nourishing meals, drinking enough water, sleeping when you need to, communicating with others, and exercise and fresh air every day. If you’re in the house a lot, the odd pyjama day is fine, but in general, it can help to be up and ready for the day as you normally would be, even when self-isolating.
A good daily rhythm includes a balance of three types of activities: taking care of basic needs, being productive towards longer-term goals, and soothing or enjoyable activities that don’t have any particular goal in mind. These daily rhythms are really important for maintaining your circadian rhythm or “body clock,” which regulates your basic functions like sleep, appetite, and metabolism, all of which keep you feeling well and operating at your best.
With the big and uncertain task of maintaining social distancing, it’s really important to break it down, concentrate on the things within your control, and take things one day at a time. Focus on the most important, achievable, or immediate tasks – what can get done in the next hour, day, or week. If you’ve been a parent for a while, you’re already a pro at this. When prioritising what to do, consider who matters to you, and what matters to you most in life. Let these values guide your actions, big and small, with your family and in your community.
Daily life with a baby, with its constant stream of practical tasks and ordinary moments of togetherness, is a great way to stay focused on the here and now, giving you somewhere to come back to when your mind anxiously jumps into the future. Bringing your mindful attention to whatever you’re doing with your baby – feeding, nappy changing, rocking, walking, bathing, and so on – helps give your mind a focus in the present and a way to connect with your baby. It’s normal for your mind to wander off: that doesn’t matter, and as soon as you notice that it’s happened, you’re already back in the moment with your baby. Focusing on the sensations of your baby’s soft skin, their little noises as they sleep, the smell of their head, or the curve of their cheeks enables your mind to home in on where you are right now and what matters most at this moment. With slightly older babies, spending some time being with them as they play and explore their little world can help your mind focus in this way. You may like to describe to your baby what you see them doing, which can help them make sense of their experience as well as helping your mind to stay focused. Seeing things through their eyes, noticing the little details that captivate them and watching as they experiment can help you join your baby in the present moment.
It can also help to have a longer-term project – something you’re working on throughout this time that you might not have been doing otherwise. Some ideas…
- Keep a simple “captain’s log” of how you spent this strange time together. This could be a journal or scrapbook, a photo diary, or a video log. You and your baby are living through an historical event!
- Plant seeds: carrots in the garden, cress in a window box, salad leaves in a hanging basket, summer-flowering bulbs to look forward to, or even get that allotment that you’ve always been meaning to.
- Some parents are using this opportunity to tackle toilet training – we say good luck to them!
Spending time outdoors in nature is known to be beneficial to mental health and is an excellent way to survive the day with a baby or toddler. Depending on the current social distancing restrictions, getting outside as much as possible will help break up the day and lift everyone’s mood. Being outdoors in a big space is low risk for viral transmission: local ideas are Blenheim Palace grounds, Shotover country park, Wytham woods, White Horse Hill, and Wittenham Clumps. Be aware of gates that many people may touch: bring your hand sanitiser or pop a pair of gloves in your pocket.
Exercise, both physical and mental, is an important way to look after yourself and helps give some structure to the day. Embarking on a new challenge can also be a great way to feel that you’re using this strange time for something productive. If you begin any new physical exercise, whether yoga, pilates, HIIT, K-pop dance routines, or running, start slowly and build up your strength and stamina gradually (and if you’re in the postnatal months, make sure you’re following a programme suitable for postnatal recovery). The same applies to mind-based practices such as mindfulness and meditation, relaxation, and visualisation: start gently with short practice times and build on this as it feels helpful.
Singing is another wonderful way to take care of your mental health, and babies love it too: they are an ideal audience, for whom enthusiasm counts way more than ability. You can stick the radio on while you cook, or rediscover a favourite CD from 15 years ago that hasn’t been played nearly enough since you had children. Spotify playlists are a great way to discover new music and revisit old favourites too. There are also “stay-at-home choirs” popping up to bring people together in song from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Have a look at Gareth Malone’s National Choir and the Stay at Home Choir.
Get real – I’m looking after a small child in a confined space 24/7!
We know, it’s hard. We’re not saying time to yourself drops like manna from heaven every morning. But we are saying that it’s really important to make some time to look after your own needs, whatever form that takes. Self-care’s not a luxury, it’s essential maintenance of your parenting fuselage. And any time you spend looking after yourself directly benefits your baby, your family, and your community. Short bursts of a few minutes throughout the day make a difference, and having a longer spell of time on your own at least once a day is necessary for most of us, whether that’s a shower, a run, some time to journal or meditate, a box of chocolates in the bath, or just basking in some silence. When it comes to self-care, it’s not what you do that matters, it’s how doing it makes you feel, so this is the time to check in with yourself and take a few minutes each day to do whatever makes you feel good. This time won’t find you, so it’s important that you try and carve it out. Get your loved ones to help you prioritise this time and problem-solve ways to get it. Whatever you do, self-care is about both intention and attention – form an intention about what you plan to do to look after yourself, and then while you’re doing it, focus your attention on everything about it you’re enjoying. Switch your phone off, shut the door, or put headphones in, and park any anxious thoughts that keep looping. Here, we have our own collection of short self-care practices you can do together with your baby.
When you’re spending much more time than usual indoors as a family, it can be helpful to agree on some basic ground rules between the adults/older children about ways to deal with anything that’s getting on anyone’s nerves. It can help to designate areas in the house and times in the day when people can spend some time on their own if needed. Recognise that different people will have different needs, depending on the mix of introverts and extroverts in your family. It may be necessary to review these ground rules and ways of being together as you get into this new rhythm and pattern. This will be a new experience for everyone, so being open and flexible to making changes will be important.
You might feel an additional sense of responsibility to keep morale up and keep everyone else in the house on an even keel, but you don’t have to be Mary Poppins every day. It’s normal for mood and motivation to ebb and flow, and you’re likely to have some good days and some bad days. Sharing your feelings with loved ones or just writing to yourself in a journal or diary can help.
It can also be really powerful to intentionally bring attention to things you’re enjoying, that you’re grateful for, that you appreciate or that went well, especially when we dwell on them and focus on the good feelings that come from positive experiences. Where attention goes, energy flows. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has said that human brains are like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” There’s a reason for our negativity bias, and it’s kept humans alive throughout our history, but it means we need to work actively to counteract this tendency, especially in uncertain times. Some people like to name 10 good things at the end of each day, and for some it’s more about lingering with a positive experience as it happens, allowing it to soak in.
Finally, be gentle and patient with yourself. While a rhythm to the day is helpful to support psychological well-being, it’s ok to be flexible with routines, lower your standards and expectations, and focus on whatever works best for everyone in that moment. Accept that in times of uncertainty, it’s normal for very young children to need more close contact with you. Your baby or toddler won’t remember these events, but they will remember your love and care in this time spent with you.
In times of overwhelm
- Drop your attention into feeling the soles of your feet, your body against the chair or floor if you’re sitting, or your hands. Whatever’s going on in your mind, the soles of your feet will be calm and steady.
- Use breathing techniques to steady your breathing rhythm.
- Name the emotion and say it out loud: “I’m feeling scared/anxious/tired/ sad/frustrated/low/angry/overwhelmed,” etc.
- Recognise any anxious thoughts: these are very often about something that might happen in the future, not what’s happening now. Is there any action you can usefully take? If so, do it, or write a plan to do it later. If not, it doesn’t need your attention right now. Refocus on what your baby is doing: babies are great for helping you get back into the present moment because that’s where they live.
- Phone a friend, relative, or helpline (numbers below).
- Change your surroundings: go outside if possible, or into a different room.
- Move your body: stretch, dance, walk, rock your baby, or do some more intensive exercise if you can.
- PANDAS Foundation
- The Samaritans
- Reducing the Risk
- OXPIP or call 07784 197 088
- La Leche League Oxfordshire
It can be tempting to plug your child into CBeebies for the day, but beware the meltdown when it’s time to unplug! While more TV than normal is to be expected, break it up into shorter sessions with more active and off-line things in between, and include screen-based activities that aren’t passive viewing, e.g. Pop See Ko, Cosmic Kids yoga, or online games. Use screen time as a source of things to talk about or do with your child: talk to them about what they just watched, who their favourite character is, which bit was most fun. For other ideas, have a look at the Literacy Trust, which is offering free online resources for children aged 0–12 years.
Ideas for offline things to do around the house to keep the dreaded cabin fever at bay: keeping it simple is the way forward for everyone’s sanity!
- Play in the bath
- Dig in the garden: create a mud kitchen with old pots, pans and utensils
- Container play with a big tub of rice or lentils (if they want to eat it use oats or rice pops)
- Reading or making up stories
- Try some singing and rhyming games
- Listen to an audiobook. While schools are closed, Audible has made a huge collection of children’s stories (in six languages!) freely available without a subscription with no limit on downloads
- Search online for other “rainy day activities” with young children
- Unpack a kitchen cupboard: can you designate a cupboard of plastic tubs, etc., that they can get out, stack, put back in…hours of fun!
- Poke pipe cleaners or spaghetti through a colander
- Build a fort or obstacle course with chairs, cushions, and blankets
- Take magnets on and off the fridge
- Flip clothes pegs on a laundry airer
- Play hide and seek with favourite toys under cushions or around the house
- Lego and Duplo can provide lots of fun, and there are some brilliant ideas for play here
This is not the time to build a genius: getting through a few minutes at a time is good enough. Little children don’t mind how much effort went into preparing special activities. They appreciate a predictable rhythm to the day, the opportunity to pursue their sometimes offbeat interests (rolling onions across the floor, anyone?), and time spent with you.
Talking to young children about coronavirus, self-isolation, and reduced contact with grandparents and other loved ones
- With very little children, keeping the message simple and reassuring and repeating it as often as needed is key.
- Hugs and cuddles and physical contact are important ways to help children feel reassured. The current advice is to self-isolate in family groups, not to try to isolate individual members of a single household from each other. So there’s no need to hold back or ration the snuggles. Physical affection is a key part of what creates a sense of psychological safety for children (and for adults, really), and that is just as important now as it ever was.
- The links below may help as a way to explain to children what coronavirus is.
- With slightly older children, you can explain virus transmission using glitter or flour: wet your hands, put your palms down flat on the glitter/flour, show that this is now on your hands, and show how it transmits to other surfaces when you touch them. Then wash your hands to show how they get clean. This can help to explain why people need to reduce social contact, as well as why handwashing is important.
- Rather than focusing on the absence, let children know where their loved ones are: “Granny is in her house in [village],” “Your friend is playing in his garden.”
- Keep in contact using video calling, e.g. grandparents can read stories via video call, friends can show each other something they have made or played with today.
- Use the postal service to send drawings and letters to loved ones.
- Consider keeping up usual routines via video call, e.g. Sunday lunch with grandparents.
Cartoon explaining how COVID-19 affects people and how to stop it spreading which is colourful, reassuring, and easy for children to understand.
UNICEF’s suggestions of how to talk to your child about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
The Guardian’s guide to how to stop a worry becoming catastrophic.
A picture book explaining the importance of staying inside.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust Perinatal Mental Health Service (2020) Maintaining occupational balance during self and/or family isolation (image shared through professional networks).
Hanson, Rick (2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPXOASa1shY.
Harris, Russ (2020) FACE COVID – How to respond effectively to the Corona crisis. www.TheHappinessTrap.com.
Smith, N. and Barrett, E. (2020) Coping with life in isolation and confinement during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Psychologist https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/coping-life-isolation-and-confinement-during-covid-19-pandemic.
World Health Organization, War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International (2011). Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers. WHO: Geneva.
Written by Dr Guinevere Webster, clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher, Dr Rebecca Knowles Bevis, perinatal clinical psychologist, Dr Jacinta Cordwell, paediatric clinical psychologist, and The Motherkind Café co-ordinators Emily Malden, Katherine Crawford, and Kats Handel.