Impact of Covid-19 on early years ‘could harm health of a generation’, new report suggests

Kathy Oxtoby
Friday, November 26, 2021

The long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic could hinder the early physical development of babies and young children and lead to increased health risks and inequalities in later life, researchers have warned.

Many of the trends and impacts of the pandemic ‘could harm the health of a generation’, a new report looking at its effect on young children suggests.

In the report, which was published today (26 November) and shared with public health officials, the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) examined UK and international evidence on the impact of the pandemic on the early years (0-5 year olds), looking at physical activity, food insecurity and dietary deficiencies, breastfeeding, oral health, immunisations, and sleep. 

EIF said it was confident that the report, Growing up in the Covid-19 pandemic: An evidence review of the impact of pandemic life on physical development in the early years, was the first to look at ‘the emerging evidence on such a broad range of impacts on the physical development of babies and young children that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic’. 

‘The report adds to other stories which have also begun to round up, in the whole, the impacts of the pandemic on our youngest citizens,’ EIF said.



Large decreases in physical activity ‘could be hard to reverse’

Researchers found that there was evidence to suggest large decreases in both activity and attitudes towards physical activity which could be hard to reverse. An increase in sedentary lifestyles and more screen time would have implications for obesity and other health conditions.  

Additional risk factors for reduced physical activity included children who have a limited outdoor space to play, for example children living in blocks of flats, and those where parents work from home.  

All of the studies identified indicated that food security has worsened as a result of Covid-19, both globally and in the UK leading to increases in food banks and poorer diets with increases in processed foods, sweets and salty snacks. 

Evidence available indicated more negative experiences of breastfeeding and higher cessation rates among women from UK ethnic minority groups, and those living in more challenging circumstances. 

There was evidence to indicate that routine vaccinations in infants significantly reduced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and elsewhere. The evidence suggested that some families in England were unaware that routine vaccinations should continue, and some had difficulty accessing vaccination appointments.  

For many young people, sleep quality during the pandemic changed, the report found. Evidence from other countries suggested that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with neurodevelopmental conditions, were at risk of poorer sleep quality during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Researchers concluded that ‘without prioritisation of evidence-based policies and services aimed at supporting physical activity, promoting food security, good quality diet and nutrition, breastfeeding, oral health, vaccinations, and sleep, the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to hinder the early physical development of this generation of young children and lead to increased health risks and inequalities in their later lives’.


Wide-ranging impact of pandemic on young children

Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation said: ‘The findings of this report illustrate the wide-ranging impact that the Covid pandemic has had on young children, who are in a vital stage of their development.

‘For example, evidence suggests there have been decreases in physical activity and increases in screen time, as well as poorer diet and increased food insecurity along with negative experiences of breastfeeding, decreased oral health, reduced immunisation rates and changes in sleep patterns. For many of these trends, the behaviour changes that the pandemic has caused could have a serious and long-term impact on an entire generation.  

‘Behaviour changes such as decreases in physical activity and a poorer diet can be hard to reverse and can have knock-on impacts on everything from obesity and diabetes to oral health and cognitive development. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, emerging evidence suggests the highest price will be paid by minority ethnic and poorer children.’

Dr Casebourne added: ‘A child’s physical development is often overlooked when thinking about a child’s overall early development. Evidence suggests that the impact of the pandemic on physical development is likely to be substantial, especially for vulnerable children, but to understand the picture fully, more evidence is needed to fully understand the consequences now and in the long-term, to prevent these impacts falling on an entire generation.’


To read the full EIF report click here.

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