The effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on children’s health: A UK case study

Children's Health

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has taken its toll on people from all walks of life. While severe disease typically affects a small percentage of the population, the impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) – such as social distancing, travel restrictions and regional or national lockdowns – have had behavioral, psychological and health-related impacts on us all. One such group that has been affected are children. With many pupils remote learning due to school closures in large parts of the world, researchers have found that the lockdown measures which have ordered schools to close and for people to stay at home have negatively impacted their health and well-being.

UK-based researchers – from the University of Birmingham, the University of Glasgow and the University of Bristol – have explored how national lockdown has changed young children’s everyday activities, eating and sleep habits. They found that children’s activity, screen time, eating, and sleep routines have been disrupted during the “stay-at-home” order in the United Kingdom.

Study background

The coronavirus pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), first emerged in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019. From there, it has spread to more than 190 countries and territories and infected over 65.23 million people.

When the virus reached the United Kingdom in March, the government imposed the spring “lockdown” on March 23, where people were instructed to stay at home and leave the house only when buying essential goods. During this time, schools and non-essential businesses were closed, leaving children in their homes.

On June 1, the UK government has allowed preschools to reopen to all children, alongside other schools. However, though many schools reopened for in-person lessons, occupancy remained low with attendance half that was recorded for the same period the previous year. Many parents opted to have their children stay home on remote learning due to fears of infection with SARS-CoV-2.

The study

The study, which appeared in the pre-print journal medRxiv*, explored the impact of lockdown and its easing on preschool children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. Specifically, they tackled several aspects, including physical activity, sedentary behavior, food intake, and sleep.

To arrive at the study findings, the researchers recruited a parent or carer of a child aged 3 to 54 years in their final years at the preschool, a child that attends preschool at least once per week, and a child who will start school in September.

The team conducted interviews and analyzed them using thematic analysis. A total of 16 mothers and four fathers participated in the study.

What the study found

The researchers found that the children’s activity, screen time, eating, and sleep routines had some level of disruption during the lockdown period.

The parents reported that children consumed more snacks. They also spent more time preparing meals and eating as a family.

Moreover, the parents reported reduced physical activity of their children, and they spent more time using gadgets and computers. The parents also said they had a problem getting their children to sleep because they spend more time in front of a screen.

Since most children are not allowed to go out, their level of physical activity was reduced. However, in some households where children have siblings, they were still able to play. Having an outdoor space is also important, as some children maintained their activities, thanks to trampolines, bicycles, and scooters, among others.

In terms of the parents’ feelings, they expressed guilt about the changes in activity, screen time, and snacking during the lockdown period. Though many think the changes will be just temporary and would not have a lasting impact, they were worried about re-establishing healthy routines when things go back to normal.

The spring COVID-19 lockdown negatively impacted on pre-school children’s eating, activity, and sleep routines. While some positive changes were reported, there were widespread reports of lack of routines, habits, and boundaries which, at least in the short-term, were likely to have been detrimental for child health and development,” the researchers concluded in the study.

The study highlights the importance of guidance and support for families during times of COVID-19 restrictions. These could help them maintain healthy activity, eating, screen-time, and sleeping routines for their children, to protect their health and well-being. Also, guiding the children during this time could ensure that unhealthy habits are not adopted and persist after the pandemic.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:

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