Pandemic Babies and Their Social Development
Babies who were born shortly before or after the COVID-19 pandemic are now wild little toddlers! But while completely wild at home, some of them exhibit some social apprehensions. People often use the term “COVID babies” or “pandemic babies” for these kiddos who hide behind their parents and cling to them for dear life in unfamiliar social scenarios. My son was born just shortly before the pandemic started, so he has essentially only known pandemic life and certainly fits the “covid baby” persona.
As an anxious first time mom, I definitely took COVID precautions seriously: we did not attend many social gatherings, generally avoided crowds and I didn’t even take my son to the grocery store with me until after he was a year old. I still take precautions, but am far more relaxed about it than I used to be. I am also a stay at home mom during the week, so my toddler has never been in daycare and regularly around other toddlers and adults.
So now, with my son being 2 years old and with the world slowly starting to feel a bit more “normal”, I am exposing him to a lot more people and places. Plus, all the snow has melted for the season and we are spending most of our days out and about!
I take my tot to the park, on nature walks, to the grocery store, the gymnastics center, the library, the coffee shop and we visit close friends and family. When we first started diving into all these outings, my toddler would literally run in the opposite direction from any kid that approached him or walked by him. He also would start crying if I stepped more than a foot away from him in an unfamiliar, or even a not so unfamiliar setting.
As he was exhibiting this separation anxiety, I started to question my parenting. Had I inadvertently sheltered my child to the point that it was detrimental to his social development? By choosing to be a stay at home parent, was I selfishly depriving him of regular interactions with his peers in daycare?
After a deep dive into the matter of toddler socialization though, I am confident that my son is doing just fine! So if you are a parent with a pandemic baby turned toddler, let me share some information and thoughts that may offer some comfort.
Toddler Social Development and Separation Anxiety
First, we need to understand and acknowledge what is considered developmentally appropriate when it comes to toddlers and issues like separation anxiety. In the “Parenting Beyond Discipline” podcast, Erin Royer explains that separation anxiety is fairly normal for young toddlers.
She explains that separation anxiety often comes and goes up until the age of 5 or even 7 sometimes. And separation anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, but oftentimes a sign of a strong and healthy attachment with a parent or caregiver. Children who have formed a healthy attachment trust that their parent or caregiver is going to consistently be there for them. They feel that they have a safe and secure base. So this is a good thing!
Further explaining healthy attachment, Gene Oullette in the Kindergarten Ready: What Really Matters in Child Development podcast explains that toddlers with healthy attachment have caregivers who are in tune with their child. They know when to provide comfort and safety for their children, but also know when to back off and let their child explore and develop their independence.
So when separation anxiety is related to a child’s healthy attachment to a caregiver, perhaps starting to focus on this element of gently encouraging exploration and independence is especially relevant. I say gently though, because we have to remember that a 2 year old is still going through an incredible amount of growth and development. And they are experiencing many things for the very first time! So we have to remember this and allow them to be little.
In the My New Life podcast by Lovevery, Jessica Rolph explains that it is “important to keep in mind that a lot of that socialization with other children doesn’t typically happen until much older than we think. So a 1 or 2 year old isn’t doing the same socialization as a 3, 4 and 5 year old.”
It’s so easy to forget that babies and young toddlers live in totally different worlds than we do. Their brains are still rapidly developing, and they simply see and experience the world differently than adults do or even kids do who are just a little bit older.
For example, Rolph and episode guest Nekole Eaton go on to discuss how a 1 year old simply isn’t ready to sit with other children and socialize in the way we think of socialization as adults. And even at 2 years old, those toddlers are engaging in what is referred to as “parallel play”. That is, they may play alongside each other, but they aren’t having direct interactive play. So if your 2 year old pandemic baby is still only interested in mostly doing his own thing when it comes to play, this is totally normal!
While keeping the above in mind, I do still think there are ways we can encourage our slow to warm-up toddlers to get more comfortable in unfamiliar social settings. Here are some of the things we are doing with my toddler to gently encourage his social blossoming.
Supporting Pandemic Babies’ Social Development
Social Exposure Outings
These are outings where you and your toddler are around other people, but there is little pressure to interact with others directly. But, your toddler gets the chance to observe other people and learn that these scenarios are safe. Examples of low pressure outings and activities to start out with include the following;
- Trips to the grocery store
- Local parks (usually there are high traffic park times that can be good for more exposure to other kids – around noon and early evening in our area)
- Quiet coffee shops
- Libraries (You can check out my post on local children’s libraries and all they have to offer)
Ideas for more demanding social outings and experiences to work up to include the following;
- Local toddler classes (We are about to check out “Tinkergarten” and local toddler gymnastics classes)
- Playdates with one or two other toddlers
- Leaving your toddler with a babysitter, friend or family member for a short period of time (starting out with even just 20 minutes)
Baby Steps Towards Social Experiences and Behaviors
Some toddlers need a little more support, time and encouragement than others when it comes to social mingling, and this is perfectly ok! If the world were filled with all the exact same types of people, that would be so dull! We need all the different types of little toddlers with all their different little personalities.
So for my toddler who has a slow to warm-up temperament, I often remind myself that taking baby steps when it comes to his social development is helpful. I encourage him, but don’t push him. For example, I will comment on how much fun it looks like kids are having at the park and let him know he can play too if he wants. If he wants to keep observing for awhile though, I don’t push it.
And since adopting this baby steps mindset, I have actually been blown away by how fast he is taking those baby steps! For example, within a week, he went from running away from kids who were close to him at the park, to sharing his toy cars with a couple of little boys.
Building Social Life into a Routine
Babies and toddlers thrive off of routine. Routines help them feel like the world is safe and predictable. They know what to expect and so they can use their energy and attention on other matters.
So when it comes to helping my toddler feel more comfortable in social settings, I am talking to him a lot about where we are going, who will be there and what it will be like before we actually get to those places. I also try to take him to the same places every week, so that he gets more comfortable in those settings.
While I think the above steps are important to help my toddler feel more confident in social settings, I also am starting to think about preschool or some other way to get him spending time with a regular group of his peers once he gets a little older.
In her podcast “Parenting Beyond Discipline”, Erin Royer explains that from around age 3 to 3.5 is a really important period for social development and growth. This is when kids start wanting more direct and regular interaction with their peers.
Learning About Social Relationships at Home and Through Books
I have often caught myself thinking that the only way my son is going to learn to be social is through interacting with his peers. I forget though, that parents are actually the first people who are usually teaching their babies and toddlers about social behavior.
For example, we can teach our toddlers how to be kind, take turns and play games at home. We teach them about basic behaviors that are and are not socially acceptable. And we create a healthy relationship with them, so that they know what that looks like and how it works.
In addition to teaching them these things through our everyday interactions, we can also read them books with stories about prosocial behaviors. Young children can pick up on so much through simple story books and illustrations!
For more ideas on supporting toddlers’ social development, see my post on Shy Toddlers and 5 Ways to Support Their Social Development.
Pandemic Parenting Support
Especially during these strange pandemic times, I think we all need a little extra encouragement and kindness as parents. For our own wellbeing, and also so that we can extend that same love and support to our children. So I hope we can all give ourselves a little encouraging pat on the back and celebrate our little tots!
If you have any comments, experiences or additional ideas on ways to support young toddlers and their social development, please say hi and leave a comment below!