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Supporting Your Child's Development During COVID-19

A young chile playing with blocks during the Covid-19 pandemic

First words, baby steps, bike rides—childhood is punctuated by happy memories that double as reminders to parents that their kids are learning and growing as they should be. 

Those milestones are crucial no matter what's happening in the world. Yet major disruptions like COVID-19 can limit kids' development, as parents are stretched thin and struggle to figure out how to keep up from home. 

"We as a global pediatric community have spent a lot of time and energy since March making our offices safe places for families to come and get their regular well-child care. There is absolutely no reason to delay care."

With months of sheltering in place, playgrounds closed and schools moved online, kids have lost opportunities to socialize. Meanwhile, many sports and group activities are also shuttered in an effort to prevent transmission. 

Children—stuck at home with limited options for exercise and plenty of time on their hands—are snacking more and moving less, which has raised concerns of a spike in childhood obesity, studies show. Screen time is skyrocketing—by as much as 500%, according to one study from advocacy group ParentsTogether.

Cedars-Sinai pediatrician Pamela J. Phillips, MD

Cedars-Sinai pediatrician Dr. Pamela Phillips says parents face unusual challenges during COVID-19 to make sure their kids' development stays on track.

"Certainly nobody feels they're keeping their children stimulated in ways they normally would have been able to do," says Dr. Phillips. 

Still, Dr. Phillips stresses there are plenty of ways to encourage your child's growth during the pandemic. In fact, the unprecedented amount of family time can be an opportunity.

Engage with your kids

Set limits on work and home time so it doesn't all bleed together. Try to have dinner as a family, and ask children about their days. 

Lots of kids are scared right now—and don't necessarily understand what's happening.

"Make sure they know the door's always open to talk to you and to let you know how they're feeling," she says.

Practice skills that foster your child's creativity and learning

Down time doesn't have to mean shutting off your brain. Dr. Phillips encourages you to read to your child—whether it's a children's book or the newspaper. 

Reading encourages language, literacy and communication across all ages and offers ways for your child to join in, such as turning the page, helping to tell the story and predicting what will happen next. 

Children need access to activities they can participate in—such as puzzles and building blocks for problem-solving, and coloring and art for creativity. For infants and toddlers, games involving back-and-forth play such as "peek-a-boo" can boost cognitive growth.

Dr. Phillips also suggests involving your kids in household chores such as cooking, which can teach them about math, temperature and measurement.

Exercise together

Don't give in to a sedentary lifestyle. Dr. Phillips recommends making sure kids are moving their bodies for at least 30 minutes every day.

That can mean bike rides, long walks, jumping jacks, family yoga and online workout videos. To make it fun, you can even make exercise a game or family competition—like racing around the block. 

"Most of all, model for the kids that it's important to do things that are good for your health and are good for your family time," she says.

Find alternative ways to socialize safely

Isolation is increasing stranger anxiety and separation anxiety, especially in young children.

But interaction outside of family is still important for their social and emotional growth. Dr. Phillips recommends chatting with people on walks or at the grocery store—while taking precautions such as staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

"I try to show kids we're not afraid of other people—we're just keeping our distance," she says. 

Dr. Phillips also suggests socializing through video chats or online games with friends. 

Keep track of development

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's milestone checklist can help you monitor growth by age. If you notice your child is falling behind or losing skills they once had, always call your pediatrician.

Pediatricians will listen, Dr. Phillips says, but parents are often the best authority on how their child is progressing.

Don't skip doctor visits

Fear of COVID-19 transmission has been linked to decreases in medical care and vaccines. But Dr. Phillips emphasizes that seeing your pediatrician regularly is imperative—and safe. 

"We as a global pediatric community have spent a lot of time and energy since March making our offices safe places for families to come and get their regular well-child care," she says. "There is absolutely no reason to delay care."

Well-child visits allow pediatricians to evaluate your child's development and give you the chance to raise any questions or concerns and get ahead of problems.

"The earlier you intervene," she says, "the quicker things get better."