TORONTO – A year after the onset of the pandemic and sick of being locked in their homes, many Canadians can feel like they are nearing breaking point. But for infants and toddlers, the lack of contact with people outside their immediate family means they miss out on the social and biological interactions that are essential to their development, experts say.
Marie-Claire Arrieta, assistant professor in the department of physiology and pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, says the early years through preschool age are critical for exposure to the microorganisms that help digest our food, protect us from disease and regulate our immune system.
“The concern now is that in many cases we know these signals are coming from our contact with other humans which, during a pandemic, has been greatly reduced,” she said.
According to Arrieta, pandemic isolation is only part of a larger picture of modern life reducing our exposure to microbes, such as through overuse of antibiotics and our increasingly urban interior lifestyles, which reduce the amount of organisms we collect from animals and the soil.
“Many of us believe that the pandemic is worsening this concern for two main reasons: the fact that children are now less in contact with other children, and then the extreme hygiene to which everyone must be attentive now”, she declared.
Arrieta said it is difficult to predict the long-term results of the isolation linked to the pandemic, but the overall consequence of a lack of microbial diversity is a higher risk of certain diseases, including asthma and allergies, as well as obesity.
With social isolation likely to continue until vaccines are more fully rolled out, Arrieta said parents can maximize the amount of germs their children encounter by squeezing them out as the weather warms.
“Go outside, go for hikes. Let the kids get dirty, play outside, do what the kids do, ”she said.
On the socialization side, experts are also concerned about the impact of isolation, although this concern is less pronounced when it comes to infants. While interactions with other humans are paramount from the start for children, the key social contacts for babies are their parents or immediate caregivers, says Sheri Madigan, clinical child psychologist at the University of Calgary.
“I think for young kids these (parenting) interactions are really important and you know a lot of parents are home and alone right now and kids have a lot of time to spend with parents,” a- she declared.
However, as children approach the age of three, their need for engagement with other children becomes more important as they begin to develop back-and-forth communication skills with others.
“You can think of them as service and return interactions,” Madigan said. “I think it’s a really critical time for kids to start using the social skills they learn by interacting with their tutors and start applying them to how they interact with other kids their age. “
Madigan is also concerned about the impact of social isolation on parents, and the possibility that it will prevent them from becoming their best parents.
“I think one of the things that maybe has been the most difficult for parents is that they don’t get the interactions that they need,” she said. “We know our cup is often much fuller when we’ve been able to go out and have a social snack or a chat with someone.”
Madigan says she is optimistic that children can catch up on their social development once the pandemic is over, although parents may want to try to bring them back to what would be normal levels of social interactions.
“I think we have to be careful not to send them all back at the same time, but to create progressive entry points for the kids to play with a friend, and then maybe play with a few friends, so build them into something. so. ”she said.
When it comes to microbial health, one of the good things about pandemic isolation is that there has been less spread of other viruses and people have also taken fewer antibiotics, says Arrieta.
“From a microbial perspective, the pandemic is changing a lot of things. Some of them are cause for concern, but some of them may actually be good news. “