A Blog by Dr Elizabeth Gregory Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Aneurin Bevan University Health Board

In this blog, Liz shares her thoughts on getting through lock-down with a baby using the helpful acronym T.R.U.S.T.

T – Trust

The one thing this pandemic has given many of us is time with our children – whether they are babies, toddlers, school aged, teenagers or young adults. They are at home with us or we are at home with them in ways we never could have predicted. The amazing thing about babies is this is what they want/crave/need/love more than anything else. That is not to say it isn’t also one of the toughest things about this pandemic for parents. It is often exhausting, stressful, boring and relentless. All of that can be true AND our babies can be benefiting from it as well. Lots of parents worry that their babies aren’t getting out and meeting a range of people and doing a range of activities. Of course, there are huge disadvantages and losses to this, but mainly for the grown-ups. Babies can get most of what they need just by having you near.

How you spend that time doesn’t really matter either to babies so long as you are together. They are fascinated by the most mundane of tasks – whether it is putting the bins out or sorting out the sock drawer. That is the wonderful thing about babies – so long as you are interacting with them they will be benefiting, regardless of what the focus is. Talking them through the boring jobs provides so many opportunities for relationship and language development – from colours to shapes to patterns to numbers to letters to textures to smells to tastes to feelings. You name it, if you provide a running commentary of your day your baby will be taking it in. Even better if these are regular activities that happen throughout the day or week.

Repetition, explanation and demonstration are all the tools you need to give your baby the best possible start in their development. They especially love your face so look at them as often as you can. They will be enthralled by the stories you tell regardless of how dull they seem to you. When it comes to parenting, this adoration for all that you do slips out of childhood like sand in an hourglass – make the most of it!

R – Rhythm

Babies also love rhythm – whether it is swaying, rocking, patting, singing, dancing, clapping, bouncing or walking back and forth. Century-old lullabies and nursery rhymes embody this and are loved by babies all over the world; passed down through generations. Indeed, the idea for this blog came when I saw a nursery rhyme on Twitter that I used to sing to my own babies but had forgotten all about – and never actually seen written down before! Some parents feel self-conscious about singing but babies don’t care how in-tune you are, and to them, you are the best singer in the world. They also don’t care if you get the words wrong. Again this tolerance reduces dramatically as they get older so make the most of it! I do occasionally try and sing this one to my now 16 and 19-year-old if they are having a tough time. It can go either way, but mostly it helps me!

One of the most powerful demonstrations of the impact singing like this can have on babies came when I volunteered for Roots of Empathy. This is a school-based programme where a parent and baby comes into the classroom (now adapted to happen virtually), and helps the children learn about their own feelings by trying to understand the world from the point of view of the baby. I have written about it here if you want more information as it is so much more than this.

Singing is a key part and every session starts and ends with the hello and goodbye song; with nine sessions over the course of the school year. At the end of the programme there is a baby celebration for all the families who have taken part locally, and the one I attended had over one hundred babies, all about a year old by then. You can imagine the noise with babies crawling and toddling, and laughing and crying and parents trying to talk to each other whilst managing the chaos. Then, Mary Gordon, the founder of Roots of Empathy, started to sing the Hello song. Silence descended and you could hear a pin drop as every baby in the room stopped what they were doing and turned in wonder at a song they knew so well. It was fascinating and delightful to behold. It wasn’t long before chaos descended once more but that moment was magic! Familiar songs learnt during times of fun can be very powerful at calming an upset or worried baby too.
U – Understanding

This is a global pandemic. It is incredibly tough on everyone and especially tough on new parents. Momentous, one off land marks like sharing news, scans, preparing for the birth and the birth itself will have been impacted very significantly, and completely different to all your hopes and expectations. Be gentle on yourself, and give time to understanding the torrent of conflicting emotions you are likely to be feeling. By their very nature these are isolating times and to feel isolated and alone with a new baby is very tough indeed. Try to get out as often as you can, whatever the weather, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing. Try to have a regular routine – getting up, eating meals and going to bed at a similar time each day. Try setting small, achievable goals to provide a sense of predictability, progress and control. Most importantly, be kind to yourself and to each other if you have a partner or a support bubble.

This is a moment in history, and it is very significant to have a baby at this time. Maybe keep a diary so that you can share it with your child as they grow up. It doesn’t have to be detailed or particularly interesting but it will provide a record of this strange and unique time. Ordinarily, family visits, day trips and holidays provide an opportunity for taking photos so remember to create those opportunities locally, or around the house and garden. Have a Saturday dress up day where you set up a sense of occasion to capture precious moments. The wonderful thing about babies is that they will grow and change every day. It is hard to notice this but capturing them will help mark the passing of time.

S – Support

This is the most important gap to focus on trying to fill because when new parents feel well-supported everything else falls into place. It is, of course, the hardest gap to fill given the impact of lockdown and what that means for connecting with others. Take any and every opportunity to reach out to people – whether it’s through social media, virtual groups, family Zooms or interacting on walks (safely of course). Accept all offers of help, and be brave about asking for more even if you don’t feel in desperate need. If none are forthcoming then talk with your health visitor about what options may be available. Services are more prepared now than they were in the first lockdown and lots more creative solutions are coming to the fore – as well as a greater understanding of the impact on the pandemic on new families.

If you are in a relationship try to support each other. It is a fraught period for couples at the best of times as you are thrown into a whole new way of life and with very little sleep. It is even tougher at the moment; especially if there are work or money or housing or health or relationship worries thrown into the mix, as there are for so many. Give each other space and breaks whenever you can and rest or sleep rather than feeling you have to do jobs when the baby is napping. Indeed any pressure you may have felt to keep on top of housework can relax a bit knowing people can’t just pop over uninvited. If you do feel worried that you are not coping then do let someone know – your partner, a relative, a friend, a professional or a help line. Prepare a list of people and in advance whether you think you will need them or not – just in case. Strong feelings can take you by surprise, especially when hormones and sleep deprivation are thrown into the mix. Sharing your worries is often enough, but there is help out there if you need it so don’t be put off reaching out.

T – Tuning in

One of the most important things you can do for your baby is to notice and tune into their mood. This is called ‘attunement’ and it refers to the ‘dance’ parents and babies can get into when everything else in the world disappears and it just ‘them’. You may have seen some of the lovely Youtube videos capturing when this happens in big ways; they are often shared on social media because they lift our spirits. It happens in small ways every day moment by moment. This is at the heart of bonding, and helps babies to learn about themselves and the world around them by showing them that a safe adult ‘understands’ their needs and will be there for them. The easiest way to think of it is like being a mirror for your baby to look into; and by seeing themselves in you it helps them to develop a sense of who they are and what they need.

Often we do this ‘dance’ automatically as it is something humans are hardwired to do – but when it is day in and day out it can drop off or feel laborious. TRUST ing that this is actually the key ingredient for happy, healthy developing babies is one way of recognising the golden opportunity lockdown has provided. It frees us from many of the distractions that can get in the way of providing this. With your baby taking the lead, smile when they smile, gurgle when they gurgle, blink when they blink, frown when they frown, yawn when they yawn, clap when they clap, wave when they wave…..and so on and so on and so on. This really is the ‘magic’ ingredient and one of very few things the pandemic has provided even more opportunities for.

So T.R.U.S.T. yourself that, regardless of the frustrations, pain and losses of lockdown, it has not hampered and it may even have enhanced opportunities to provide these little things that new borns need to grow and develop into happy, healthy babies and toddlers. Indeed, the more of these opportunities they have the more safe and secure they will feel. It is precisely this sense of safety and security that equips them to venture out into the world when we eventually get our freedoms back. In fact it is likely to make them MORE not LESS confident and sociable.

Dr Elizabeth Gregory works with Child and Family services in the NHS

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