Researchers at Oxford Examine Families with Young Children during UK Lockdown

Updated: 20 hours ago

Abigail Fiske is a member of COVID-MINDS and a PhD student in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. She and Dr Karla Holmboe, also a member and MRC Fellow in the Department, are running a longitudinal study on the impact of COVID-19 on families with young children. The study is part of the Oxford Early Executive Function (OEEF), a project that examines infants’ executive functions during their first three years of life. The study is housed in Oxford’s BabyLab. Below, Abigail and Karla outline preliminary findings regarding data collected from 203 families between April and May 2020.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to step away from the vibrant, three-dimensional social world that we knew and retreat into our homes, behind computer screens and closed doors. Our support networks collapsed before us and many familiar aspects of life were suddenly shut down. The pandemic has sent shockwaves through our communities, drastically changing what we knew to be ‘normal’. Uncertainty and unpredictability have forced significant changes to the environment in which we live. One of our study participants aptly described her feelings:


“Although my anxiety levels and stress levels are through the roof as a result of this pandemic, it is not the bug that has caused this... it is the impact of being stuck at home, having had all support networks ripped away... The impact of the pandemic on our mental health is horrific, and the damage is going to last for years.”


Our Mission


We are a group of child development researchers in the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, and we aim to capture the lived experiences of families with young children during the lockdown in the UK. We designed the new COVID-19 Impact Questionnaire for Families with Young Children, which covers areas such as family context, physical and mental health, relationships and support, housing and finance and child behaviour changes.


Our Sample


Uniquely, we had already collected pre-pandemic data from a sample of 126 infants as part of an ongoing longitudinal study investigating the development of executive functions across the first three years of life. This data was collected from maternal-reported questionnaires that measured depressive symptoms and infant temperament at 10 months of age. This baseline data will allow us to assess longitudinal changes in maternal depressive symptoms and infant temperament as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Study participants, mother & son aged 16 months.

Between April and May 2020, this same sample of mothers with infants (aged between 11 and 23 months) were sent the COVID-19 impact questionnaire in addition to the depression and temperament questionnaires. A further sample of mothers of 60 children (22-41 months) who had taken part in a cross-sectional pilot for the longitudinal study also completed these questionnaires between April and May 2020. However, we have no pre-pandemic questionnaire data for the latter group.



We Aim to:

  • Assess the longitudinal stability of associations between maternal depressive symptoms and infant/child temperament.

  • Examine how experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed over time.

Data will be collected from this same sample of mothers and their children at two further time points:

  • During the pandemic. We aim to capture the ‘new normal’ in the Autumn of 2020.

  • After the pandemic when the child turns 3.5 years.

These time points coincide with the follow-up test sessions of the OEEF study.


Significance of a Longitudinal Approach


Previous research has shown some stability in maternal depressive symptoms and infant temperament over time. Ordinarily, we would expect to replicate this stability in our sample. However, the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its unpredictability could alter the dynamics of these associations between maternal depressive symptoms and infant temperament. A longitudinal approach allows us to measure the durability and variation of the impact of COVID-19 on mothers and their infants.


A toddler and his mother at the Oxford BabyLab.

Our Preliminary Findings


Impact of the pandemic – Mothers reported feeling that they were personally affected by the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (98%) and that this impact would be enduring, lasting for 12 months or longer (69%).


"Seeing the devastating effects COVID-19 has had on people will stay with me forever.”


Changes in mental health – 57% of mothers reported that they think about the COVID-19 situation more often than they would like to and had less mental energy than before lockdown. Over half (52%) felt worried about their own mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of stress (85%) and worry (95%) were reported, as well as increases in feelings of anxiety (75%) and depression (64%) during lockdown.


Housing and financial implications Interestingly, both negative and positive changes in housing and financial circumstances were reported. Positive changes (10%) included being financially better off due to a reduction in travel costs and nursery fees. Negative implications (30%) included struggling to afford daily essentials, being furloughed and having less income due to reduced hours.


Family relationships Mothers reported spending a lot more time as a family unit (64%), and the majority felt happy about this (66%). Additionally, 56% reported that they now spent more time alone with their child, but had both positive and negative feelings about this change. These quotes summarise the overwhelming message from mothers in this sample:


“Although spending time together is pleasurable, it is overshadowed by the current situation – not being able to go out anywhere or do anything has made things stressful. And parents have no opportunity to spend time alone together.”


“This is a chance to spend time with him at a time when he is growing and developing, which I normally wouldn’t have, so I am grateful. However, is it the quality time I want to give to him during the week when I am working? No.”


Changes in child behaviour Over half of mothers (55%) reported no noticeable changes in their child’s behaviour during the lockdown. However, there were reports of increased tantrums (34%) and crying (23%), as well as changes in sleep (30%) and appetite (13%).


Summary


This preliminary data set provides unique insight into the impact of the strict UK lockdown on the lives of families with young children and begins to build a picture of the challenges (and positives!) that have arisen for families as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that our project will enable us to begin to tease apart the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the complexities of the mother-infant relationship. We intend to continue to sculpt an image of how the impact of the pandemic fluctuates over time—as we take the first cautious steps into our new normal.


Abigail Fiske and Karla Holmboe

University of Oxford


If using information from this blog please cite as: Fiske, A., & Holmboe, K. (2020). 18 September 2020. Researchers at Oxford's BabyLab Examine Families with Young Children during UK Lockdown. COVID-MINDS. (https://www.covidminds.org/post/oxford-babylab-examines-families-children-lockdown)



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