But to keep our little ones safe, we’ve had to tuck them away, keep them far from cooing visitors and other children, and do everything in our power to protect them as we ride out this pandemic. This also means they won’t get the attention and experiences that other babies have had.
Although I don’t blame you for worrying about social isolation, I will be honest with you: There’s not much to worry about, developmentally speaking. Five-month-olds are very curious, watchful and interactive. At this stage, they need very little to grow socially.
In the first year of life, humans need only a few attachments: the adults who fully love and attend to them. Because caring for a baby is so physical, it requires that you and other loving adults be at the baby’s beck and call for feeding, holding, changing, talking to and laughing with them — and gazing into their eyes. The exchange of physical contact and the subsequent “love” hormones that are released lead to a deep attachment between parent and child. This attachment orients your baby to the rest of the world, not vice versa. Your baby doesn’t need to be socialized; they simply need you (and whoever supports you) to laugh, giggle, sing, read and speak with them. Your baby’s brain would be fine with other children and activities, but only if their attachment with you is warm and loving.
“This is critical developmental time for your baby, but these parental interactions seem to be the most critical in an infant’s development,” says Gregory Germain, associate chief of pediatrics at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. “And if you have a partner, grandparent, trusted caretaker who will be on board with the precautions that you feel are warranted, your baby will benefit from those unmasked interactions, as well.”
If your baby is going to be okay, who needs the social interaction the most? Yup, it’s you. Parenting (especially mothering) young babies before the pandemic was an isolating experience in the United States, and now? I am even more concerned about the mental health of new parents. “Social stimulation from activities such as library events, meetups, playdates, during these more isolated months are important for parents,” says Krupa Playforth, pediatrician and mother of three.
Making friends with other parents who are in the same stage as you can be sanity-saving, and it’s critical in early parenting. Spring is here, so please trust the data about babies being less likely to have serious cases of covid-19, talk to your pediatrician and get outside. Nature becomes its own beautiful socialization, because 5-month-olds are at a sensory age. Watching birds take a bath, listening to children play at the park, eating a banana with you, touching grass and smelling flowers is how a baby is socialized. Narrate as you go, because your baby loves your voice and learns as you speak, which strengthens your connection. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have a pandemic, but your child is tuned in to your face, and that is what matters most.
“The bottom line is this: We are facing an unprecedented set of challenges, and the pressure to do everything ‘right’ is enormous,” Playforth says. “Parents are overwhelmed by the ‘what ifs’ when it comes to things like development. Recognize that … children, especially babies, are actually far more resilient than we believe. Infants in very different settings across the world, and with very different challenges, do develop social skills. We are evolutionarily designed to do so. As parents, we can certainly enhance this by providing opportunities to practice those skills, but even without those opportunities, many infants will still go on to develop the skills on their own.”