Mental health during a pandemic

This piece was written in August 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was published on in Janaury 2021 after it had been graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

The pandemic has caused a greater level of fear and anxiety for a lot of people across the world. It therefore is unsurprising that children are also suffering with their anxiety and mental health, in a world that has completely changed overnight for them. Speaking to experts in mental health, I have compiled some advice and warning signs to look out for in both you and your small child, though lots of the tips are useful for all of us to ensure our mental health doesn’t suffer.

What are some of the warning signs your mental health is suffering too much, causing you to not function properly?

The main warning sign is that you aren’t coping with everyday tasks, suggesting the pandemic has taken over your mind and rational thoughts. It might be causing panic attacks or what feels like physical pain, or even an uncontrollable sadness. You may have trouble sleeping, struggle to get up in the mornings or eat excessively or too little.

Bethany Twite, from the charity Mind in Norfolk and Waveney explains some warning signs you might notice: “With any mental health issue, it can be really individual to the person and come on at any time. Specifically to do with the pandemic itself, some examples are excessively worrying and obsessing about statistics, washing hands far too frequently (for example every half an hour), making them unnecessarily sore, wanting to talk about coronavirus constantly, steering conversations back to it, having the news on a loop, avoiding people at all costs regardless of social distancing and feeling overly panicked when you do come into contact with someone.

“Unfortunately, we cannot control our reaction mentally to the pandemic, but we can establish what balance looks like for us and the children around us. It is important to know what keeps you in a mentally well place and remember that doesn’t mean feeling ecstatic all the time, but a place where you can cope with everyday life and tasks, it might take a while to know exactly what a mentally well place looks like for you and you might need help to find it from a medical professional,” adds Bethany from Mind.

What should you do if you spot the warning signs in yourself?

“Utilise any support networks you have and be honest with someone when you are struggling. This can be a family member, friend or medical professional. Think of ways you can still do the things that help keep you in a mentally well place, even during the pandemic. For example, if you don’t have a garden, go to a friend’s or a park and sit in a green space,” says Bethany from Mind.

Knowing intricate details about the pandemic also isn’t necessary, so think about turning the news off and taking a social media break. “It can be easy to see people’s highlight reel on social media and feel inadequate so come off it until you are in a more positive head space,” adds Bethany.

Try Practicing mindfulness, which doesn’t have to mean meditation, just being present in the moment of each task you do. Yoga teacher, Claire Thomas, who runs classes in Hebden Bridge on health and anxiety, explains an element of Karma Yoga: “A good way to get in the moment is to add the principle to really mundane tasks. I always tell my students to do the washing up but concentrate really hard on every aspect of it. If your mind starts to wander, bring it back to the task. You can even explain out loud each step as you go, filling up the bowl, adding fairy liquid and so on. It is a really great start to mindfulness that isn’t as easy as it sounds, as to begin with your mind will keep wandering off to your anxious thoughts.”

If you did hypnobirthing for the birth of your child, try playing the tracks again and fall asleep listening to the audios. Remembering how well you got into a state of mindfulness for birth might help ease your anxiety levels.

Also take time for yourself. This can be something as small as going for a walk with a friend, taking a hot bubble bath undisturbed or dedicating an hour to get lost in a book. If going shopping in a mask is adding to your anxiety, switch to home deliveries for food shopping and make the most of the online sales from the comfort of your own home.

Maria Foy, a blogger from New Zealand who runs the blog “Happy Mum Happy Child” on Instagram, with over 70 thousand followers, said: “Every person is so different when it comes to mental health issues with different symptoms. Being aware of who you are helps to identify the signs. For me it is making sure I am looking after my basic hygiene and eating well, not necessarily healthily, just well as junk food really impacts my mental health.”

What are the warning signs to look out for in your child?

Professor Tamsin Ford, a psychologist and expert in her field from Cambridge University, explains: “Warning signs can include changes in behaviour, distress and generally not coping with ordinary activities as they did before.”

As with ourselves, anxiety and fear of the pandemic can present itself in different ways depending on each child, but can include signs such as a child going into themselves and being uncharacteristically quiet, disturbed sleeping patterns, lashing or acting out, being overly sensitive or emotional, being very clingy and not wanting to leave your side and lying devious behaviour. Generally, if they are not themselves and displaying unusual behaviours out or the ordinary.

 Like adults, they also might be obsessing over details of the pandemic, fear leaving the house or coming into contact with people.

What to do if you spot the warning signs in your child?

Try not to panic. Professor Ford advises: “The important thing is to not try and brush off the child’s feelings. Lots of us are a bit scared but think through what the risks are and also what you can do about them and discuss it with your child.

“Children are very unlikely to catch the virus and less likely to be very ill if they do. Explain to them they can make this risk even smaller by washing their hands thoroughly and more often and wearing a mask when in crowded enclosed places.”

Both Bethany from Mind and Professor Ford recommend getting outside in a non-crowded place as it can do wonders for everyone’s mental health. It can also help remind the child that it isn’t all negative in the world right now. Practicing social distancing is much easier large outdoor spaces too so it might help a child who is anxious to leave the house to start in the countryside.

Getting mindfulness into your child’s routine is also as important as getting it into your own. Instead of a task like the washing up as recommended for mothers, get them to talk you through each step of painting a picture or take them on a nature walk, concentrating on every step and bug you find.

“I think the lack of social contact has had a big impact on young children, so even Facetiming their grandparents and friends regularly can really lift their mood,” says Bethany.

Though it’s just a bit of fun, in our house we always do highlights and lowlights of our day at teatime where we each say what the high point of the day was as well as the low point. This could be extended into more of a feelings circle, similar to what my son was doing at school when he returned after lockdown. It can be a chance for everyone to voice their thoughts.

What to do about negative behaviour in your child?

Professor Ford recommends parents look at The Incredible Years Program for parents and teachers. This is an online program looking at behaviour with accompanying books, developed by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, a licensed Clinical Psychologist. A lot of schools are looking to implement the program into their teaching in September, anticipating that children’s mental health is likely to have suffered after such a prolonged period off school, resulting in negative behaviour.

“Try to repair the positive time and picking your battles but be clear about what you want the child to do and what will happen if they don’t and then follow through,” adds Professor Ford.

The Incredible Years Program also recommends that parents put aside at least 20 minutes of special time a day. “During the special time, the child sets what they do with the parent. This special time happens regardless of what has happened that day as it focuses on strengthening the relationship. When behaviour deteriorates, the parent often withdraws in frustration and then if the only time the child gets attention is by behaving badly, this encourages bad behaviour,” explains Professor Ford.

It is really important to be very specific with the child about what you want them to do and link the behaviour to consequence, for example a star chart with stickers on. “Instead of telling a child to be good, it is much better to be very specific. If shopping, give them specific instructions like hold on to the shopping trolley the whole way around the supermarket,” adds Professor Ford.

Finally, Professor Ford recommends ignoring some low level behaviours and instead distract the child onto something else rather than always telling them off. “Praise them explicitly when they do what is asked of them, we forget how reinforcing adult attention it,” says Professor Ford.

Top 5 websites to visit

The Incredible Years Program there are lots of resources on the website, you can also order the book or order it through Amazon.

MindEd The website has resources for parents, including a specific section on supporting children during the pandemic.

The NHS website This has information for parents on services they can access for their children.

YouTube A guided meditation for children. There are lots of different videos on mindfulness to try.

The Dare Method. There is also a book you can purchase which takes you through steps to get through anxiety including audio tracks for grownups.

What to expect when taking your toddler to a Covid testing station

This piece was written for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was written in August 2020 but published in January 2021 to allow time for it to be graded. The testing stations may have altered in this time.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Wilfred, who is three, started displaying all the symptoms of croup, a viral infection that causes a bark like cough, often accompanied by cold like symptoms in the middle of the night. The powerful sound woke me instantly as I rushed to make sure he was breathing ok in a blind panic.  My eldest has had it so much, we were croup veterans and regular patients at the doctors so I knew the score, but my mind instantly panicked it could be coronavirus.

I spoke to our doctor first thing the next morning who advised we had him tested for coronavirus, as they couldn’t see him to confirm a diagnosis either way. If symptoms worsened, I was to phone back later in the week. Frustrated, I put the phone down and tested his temperature militantly every hour to put my mind at ease it most likely would result in a negative test.

After booking the test online at for the same day, we read through the instructions and decided it was best to all go, as you can’t exit the car, instead the adult has to climb into the back of the car to do the test. At six months pregnant, I feared this would have all the grace of an elephant, potentially resulting in me getting stuck half way with visions of Wilfred trying to kick me back through, so my husband graciously offered to sit in the back.

We all stayed in the car and had the instructions explained through the closed window in a mask. Be prepared to ask them to repeat themselves a lot, I opted to mix it up between “pardon”, “I can’t hear you” and a general gesture to my ears. They tried their best to add hand actions and more exaggerated eye movements. After a few moments they said they could go through how to perform the test with us, or we could read the instructions ourselves. Naturally, we picked the latter as a full-blown explanation might have been more akin to a sad game of charades.

The dull grey, flat and smaller than expected test pack, was then dropped to me through a small crack in the window. If someone with bigger hands is performing the test, I would advise taking your own disposable gloves as the ones provided were very small and ripped instantly, leading to a lot of hand gel being used to overcompensate the gigantic tear in them.

The enormous swab had to go right in the back of Wilfred’s throat and also right up his nose but only took a few seconds. Wilfred struggled and gagged with the throat swab going so far in, so a bucket in case it causes a coughing fit and sickness is advisable.  They recommend taking some water for afterwards, but I also recommend taking their favourite cuddly toy for moral support if they get distressed.

We then had to snap the long swab stick, which was quite tough as it’s made of plastic so a few bends in either direction and brute force did the trick. It then went in the test tube and into the sealed bag. Once we had finished, we drove back to the exit where the QR code was scanned on the form and sample bag. Once it was all sorted, a lady with a big box came to the window and I dropped it in to the box through a tiny crack in the window. The children were disappointed they only had NHS coats on as opposed to white hazmat suits, but personally I was relieved as it felt less apocalyptic.

As per the instruction booklet, we then had to return home and remain there until the results came through. The negative test results were texted to my mobile phone the following morning at 6am with a turnaround of roughly 19 hours, so thankfully we didn’t have to wait long to resume our normal routine with great joy.

The test caused momentary discomfort for Wilfred, but he was quickly over it. Taking a few home comforts might help soften the blow of the scary big swab going so far down their throat.

5 ways to entertain your baby during a pandemic

This piece formed part of my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It was written in August 2020 including the lockdown rules at the time which may now differ. It was published on in January 2021 to allow it to be graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Coronavirus has forced us to stay at home a lot more and think of inventive ways to keep our little people happy. A little organisation can go a long way, and though it can sometimes seem impossible to find a spare few moments alone, taking a little time each evening to roughly plan out the next day can really help. It doesn’t matter if most plans go out of the window after a rough night, the intention was there, and the list can roll on to another day.

1.Plan themed weeks with easy activities to set up based on each topic. For example, dinosaur week with toy dinosaurs and playdough made volcanoes. Once your baby gets fed up, you can get the paint out and let your baby make footprints with the dinosaur’s feet.

It is important to add structured activity as their normal routine has been up-skittled for many months. If your child is not at nursery because of the pandemic, it can be a great way to emulate their nursery environment at home, even getting in touch with their key worker for ideas on themes and setting up activities.

Lisa Clegg, author of The Blissful Baby Expert Book and a maternity night nurse, helps thousands of parents find their groove. “Take one day at a time and try to break the day into sections too. With my new mums who are overwhelmed this is the biggest thing I tell them to do.

“Don’t think too far ahead or you will find it a never-ending task with no end in sight. Try to have a rough routine plan for meals and bedtimes at least to give you all some structure and then split the day into morning and afternoon activities to break the day up,” says Lisa.

Visit The Blissful Baby Expert for lots of tips, articles and mum meet ups at

2.Enroll in a local baby massage or baby yoga group. Coronavirus unfortunately closed all face to face groups but slowly they are starting up again, so it is worth checking Facebook for a local group. They are operating in spaced out in big halls, remotely, or outdoors across summer months. The benefit of a weekly group is it adds structure to the week and forces you to both get dressed and out the house, or set up in front of the computer screen if it is an online class.

It also allows you time to lean on an expert and follow their lead rather than your own. Founder of the Village Midwives, Annette Ashford, explains the benefits: “It is as much for the mothers as it is for the babies really and at the end of a baby massage course it is lovely to see how friendships have blossomed. We all need a tribe to get through motherhood and it can be the start of a lifelong friendship. It has been very different virtually but worked really well and the babies have all enjoyed sensory objects and the massage itself.”

If you are in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Norfolk or South Yorkshire, you can find classes at

3.Get outside. Remember that though we are at home more, we can make the most of the great outdoors where generally it is easier to adhere to social distancing measures. To lift both your mood and the baby’s, sometimes a stroll can be just what to doctor ordered.

It can also be fun to turn the walk into light exercise and time your routes each week to see how much you have improved. Now shops have re-opened you can reward yourself with a skinny late for the way home, feeling good about supporting local businesses at the same who are down on profits because of coronavirus.

Keira Williamson from Zen Mama is organising local walks around her hometown of Spalding with other mums. “I think we all miss the contact with others and meeting outdoors for a walk can really lift your mood as you share your experiences of motherhood and take in a bit of  exercise within the rules of coronavirus,” says Keira.

Why not see if there are local walks with other mothers in your area and if not, start your own?

Log and share your walks on and find other walks in your area.

4. “Ready, set, bake,” as they say on the Great British Bake off. Baking with your little one can be lots of fun and a chance for them to engage in messy play, getting their hands, and sometimes feet, dirty. Don’t worry, you can make a separate batch to actually eat if things go awry. If your baby is too little to join in, they might enjoy watching you bake with the different visual culinary sensations in front of their very eyes. Don’t forget to talk to them about each step of the recipe as it is a great opportunity to explore language together.

Alternatively, setting time aside to prepare lunch or dinner earlier in the day can be a fun activity and a time your baby can explore self-led weaning as they chew on a piece of cucumber. It can help prevent the stressful time of day as dinner can just be cooked later instead of you trying to prep whilst juggling an unhappy baby.

Visit for some yummy toddler recipes.

5.Have a dance party to shake it off. I like to do this on a Friday afternoon to get us in the mood for the weekend with my children. The sillier your dance moves are, the funnier your baby will find it as they get in the groove with you. To make it more authentic, darken the room and set up a disco light to add to the sensory experience. It really is impossible not to smile as you put on your favourite tunes and sing out of key to fits of giggles from your baby.

Picking a song with a solid beat your baby can nod along to before progressing to a wiggle, helps keep them interested. Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars is always a winner in our house.

Browse Apple Music, Spotify or Amazon music for readymade playlists for babies and children. Linking to your Amazon Alexa can mean the children start to make requests themselves too!

As a plan fan, it is really satisfying to print out the daily schedule and tick each activity off as we go. It helps me feel like I have achieved something, even on tricky days.

Comment below your own experiences of entertaining during the pandemic and any activities you have tried and loved.

Travel Diaries

This piece was written in July 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It has been published on in Janaury 2021 to allow time for it to be graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

In a click of a button, the trip was booked. Instant fear kicked in as I started to doubt how sensible our decision was. Were we being completely selfish and irresponsible to try and leave the safety of our home during a global pandemic? At this very moment Wilf attempted a backflip off the sofa whilst shouting “cowabunga” so my husband and I nodded simultaneously in agreement that it was definitely needed for all of our sanity and perhaps ironically, safety in Wilf’s case.

For our first trip away we decided to test the water and book just one night at the theme park, Chessington World of Adventure, near London. Though it wasn’t my first choice, the children were desperate to return since their visit last year. As parents we were comforted by the fact there would be half the number of visitors allowed in the park, so it felt like it might be quite safe.

The alarm was set for 5.30am for the first time in months and the entire contents of the house was meticulously stacked in the boot of our estate car, reminiscent of a game of Tetris. Another seemingly necessary byproduct of parenting is that everything has to be hideously brightly coloured like the game itself, as the lime green suitcase balanced below the bright red pushchair. This time though instead of the passport, wallet, keys debate before we left, we had to check we all had masks packed.

How can we possibly need an entire boot full of stuff for one night at a theme park? It definitely wasn’t because of the pandemic as the masks took up no room. Perhaps it is a British thing or a worldwide phenomenon that parents excessively overpack to cover all eventualities. I think in our case, the entire theme park population under the age of five could simultaneously wet themselves and we had them covered with fresh clothes.

The pandemic was constantly at the forefront of our minds and as a testing station occupied half the hotel car park, it was impossible to forget anyway. As country bumpkins this was the first time we had seen a station and the boys were completely blown away that the “actual” military army were there conducting the testing. As opposed to a fake army? I am not entirely sure but the word “actual” has to be annunciated excitedly when you are five and two, apparently.

Our temperature was taken as we entered the park gates and a pang of fear washed over me. Children were running and giggling all around us with little care for social distancing. As much as it was a lovely site to see children carefree and happy, I was angry they kept getting so close to us and were not discouraged by their parents. Perhaps pregnancy hormones added to my irritability but nevertheless, the empty pram proved to be a vital lack of social distancing deterrent, as I swiped it exaggeratingly left to right.

As we approached the queue for the Gruffalo ride, the character famed from Julia Donaldson’s “The Gruffalo,” I was optimistic that finally the British queuing ability would pay off. We would adhere to the new coronavirus rules and meticulously wait spaced out at two metre intervals. After a few minutes, it was clear this would not be the case as rude “Karens” pushed by us, touching us as they went to meet their spouse holding their spot nearer the front of the queue. I instantly wanted a shower as I imagined the germs spreading up and down our arms. The pandemic was adding a new level of anxiety and being close to other humans really felt unnatural.

I felt sorry for the boys as they were told for the fifteenth time “don’t touch that.” Their crestfallen faces added to my guilt that their whole existence had to be altered this year, with the inevitable “why?” met with “because of coronavirus.”  Followed by a sad voice that said: “Coronavirus ruins everything.” For the children it is a nuisance and inconvenience ruining their fun. I envied their innocence and lack of understanding of the gravity of such a global catastrophe with no clear end in sight.

Both children cried on the Gruffalo ride and never wanted to go on it ever again. So glad we had bothered to risk our lives for the experience.

The day progressed in a similar fashion as my anger level rose with each person who invaded our space. When a tiger walked by the viewing window in the zoo part of the park, it was apparently totally acceptable to forget about the pandemic for an Instagram selfie.

Finally check in time for the hotel arrived as we walked back to a chorus of moaning over who got to sit in the pushchair. I longed to have a narrow enough bottom to be a contender for the coveted prize as my whole-body ached. An occupational hazard of this being the third child in a body well trodden, sagging and protruding in ways no woman ever wishes to. At this moment in time our decision to leave the house seemed extremely stupid and I regretted it to the point I had to swallow back a lump in my throat, people were just not taking it seriously.

We all pulled ourselves together and checked into our Giraffe themed room which was magnificent, looking over the nature reserve with roaming cattle, zebras and ostriches. Naturally, the children were more interested in the seagull that landed on the windowsill, but at least we were in our own space and could sit down away from the crowds with a hot cup of tea. Even if it was in a disposable cup. Why would the pandemic mean crockery in our room was a no go? The sheets weren’t disposable, so I am not sure why we couldn’t have proper cups that were washed on our departure.

Dinner was as expected, a reduced, carb heavy menu because of coronavirus with tables slightly too close together for my liking. My husband ordered a large glass of red wine as I glared at him, green with envy as I ordered a large water.

The following day the park was even busier, so the children picked out a couple of rides each and we made our way back to the safety of our car before lunchtime. As we sat in the car, both of us sighed with relief that our time had come to an end at Chessington, wallets jingling less after the obligatory gift shop purchases to signify the end of the trip.

Having had a few weeks back at home, meticulously checking everyone temperature to make sure we remained coronavirus free, I have reflected on our trip more positively. It was really good to get the children out of the house and they thoroughly enjoyed their freedom. No one got poorly, so the measures in place hopefully were good enough to prevent spreading the virus. It was also lovely to watch the children enjoy themselves in a setting that was off limits for so many months. Really not much of our trip was too far different to previous visits either and the coronavirus was more of a constant nuisance in the background rather than ruining the trip entirely.

 Whilst I won’t be in a rush to book another theme park, I am keen to get us away somewhere in the countryside in our touring caravan so we can have a change of scenery again.

Screen Time

This article was written in June 2020 as part of a portfolio of work for my MA course at the University of Lincoln. It has been published on in January 2021 to allow time for it to be graded first.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced some parents, like myself, to engage in more screen time with their children. This can be to communicate with family, do schoolwork or even attend virtual baby and child groups. I asked some experts what damage this can cause to childhood development and how parents can help.


The old saying “Don’t stand so close to the TV or you will get square eyes,” thankfully isn’t true, though it didn’t stop our mothers saying it in the eighties and nineties. Now screens come in the form of televisions, laptops, desktop computers, tablets and mobile devices and children can become a little obsessed.

Last week Jeremy Hunt MP even tweeted a letter his four year old daughter had typed, with the help of her brother, assuring him she had been good, loved him very much and asked if she could have some screen time as a reward. A scene familiar in my own house where my two children would happily sit all day on screens if they were allowed to.

Optometrist Annica Clark, from Clark Family Eyecare in Donington, Lincolnshire, put my mind at ease a little for my own children’s increase in screen time since lockdown began in March: “There is no direct link between increased screen time and damage to children’s eyes, however it is worth considering the effect of blue light and decreased focal lengths.”

What is blue light and what can it mean for my child?

Blue light is present in everyday life and comes from sunlight and electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and televisions. It has been linked to problems with sleeping.

“Whilst it’s not ‘damaging’ to anyone’s eyes, per say, some opticians will argue that blue light for prolonged periods can cause eye strain and affect our circadian rhythm  which is our bodies natural rhythm to fall asleep and wake up,” Annica adds.

Can screens lead to my child needing glasses?

“There is no direct link between screens and myopia (short-sightedness) in children though any increase in close work can potentially cause strain and lead to myopia. This is not just screens though it can be knitting or even reading a book as examples,” says Annica.

What can we as parents do to protect our children’s eyes?

If screen time for schoolwork and the occasional treat is necessary during lockdown, it might be worth investing in some blue lensed glasses to help reduce the levels of blue light the eyes are taking in.

It also is recommended you break the screen time up regularly throughout the day and encourage outdoor play. Annica expands on this further: “There is a suggestion that children who spend more time outdoors are at lower risk of developing myopia.”

Can screens alter development?

In a word, yes.

Early Years Teacher, Sue Strickson from Ayscoughfee Hall School in Spalding, explains: “The difference in the last fifteen years has been quite remarkable. Some children come to us and try and swipe up to turn book pages now, perhaps never really handling real books at home.

“We also have noticed that pencil grips are generally much weaker as children are spending more time on screens and less time putting pencil to paper.”

Nursery owner, Sheona Smith has also noticed a change in nursery aged children.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years, the advance in technology has been completely astounding but the decline in children’s communication and language development has been frightening. I believe the two are closely linked with many intertwining factors,” says Sheona.

The factors include screens replacing reading but also at times, screens replacing conversations with parents. Also, the change in pram fashion over the last few decades where most toddler push chairs face out rather than towards the parent. Many conversations are therefore lost or at least the face to face aspect is, so the child cannot watch you speak and move your lips.

“The decline in parents speaking to their children has meant that now some children are not speaking until they are nearly three or even later, their behaviours are also very affected by the lack of communication as they do not have the correct tools to deal with everyday situations, how can you sort a problem if you don’t have the language to communicate,” explains Sheona.

It is feared the issue may get worse after children have spent more time at home and on screens during the pandemic.

What can parents do to help?

Variety is key so break up screen time with reading books, letting the children handle the books and turn the pages. Make sure you always have pencils and paper readily available and encourage toddlers to start mark making on the page.

Pencils are preferable over felt-tip pens as they are harder to mark the page meaning the grip will get better. Use playdough or Lego building to add dexterity to fingers to help strengthen their fingers. A bonus is they also help their concentration!

Teacher, Sue Strickson, expands on this further: “Try not to worry about getting children writing their name before they start school, instead concentrate on mark making, drawing pictures and pencil grip. We sometimes find those that write their name have to start from scratch if the letter formation is different to how we teach it.”

What about brain development?

There are lots of studies currently looking into the impact screens have on brain development as the full picture is only just starting to be known with the technology improving so much in the last decade.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health in America recently conducted a study on nine and ten-year-olds across 21 sites with eleven-thousand children. Preliminary results showed that children that spent two or more hours on screens a day, performed worse in tests on thinking and language against their peers who spent less time on screens. MRI scans were used to scan the brains which also showed differences.

As this is only one study, it cannot be concluded that screens definitely have a negative impact, but it is worth considering limiting time where possible, though this is hard during the pandemic with educational resources often online.

Why is screen time linked to obesity in children?

Dietitian Nicki Weaver explains: “Screen time increases sedentary behaviour which in turn can be an issue with the increasing levels of obesity in adults and children. One of the key things a parent can do is only do the bare minimum using technology.”

If you are continuing a level of home schooling across the summer holidays, it might be worth considering printing worksheets out to avoid using screens too much. To avoid the sedentary behaviour, having a timer go off at set intervals for some physical activity breaks might be fun and help children concentrate better for shorter periods of time.

Nicki also explains the problems with eating whilst watching screens: “Eating whilst watching television or using a computer, increases the chance of higher volumes of high fat and sugary snacks being eaten, which in turn leads to weight gain.

“Portion control is very difficult to manage when we eat like this. We call it mindless eating. To be mindful in our eating we need to be sitting still with no other distractions then we are able to process and feel satisfied as we remember eating and tasting the food.”

Coronavirus has been proven to impact obese people more severely so it is important to limit mindless eating in children to help prevent obesity.

What snacks should I feed my child?

Nicki suggests going for foods that are high in fibre and protein as they are filling.

“Go for a small handful of nuts, whole-wheat cereals, rice cakes, vegetables with hummus, natural yogurt with fruit or popcorn to help to fill children up. Just remember that portion sizes are key and make sure the child is sitting at the table with no screens or distractions,” says Nicki.

Parent tips

I have spoken to some of our readers to find out the best ways to manage screen time with children during lockdown.

Kim Nicholls, a mother to a six-year old boy and three-year old girl, has been home-schooling her children but managed to send both back to their educational settings in the last few weeks.

“It is really hard to juggle but generally we did worksheets that were printed out rather than schoolwork on the computer. I try to keep the computer for fun things they want to watch and play at short intervals across the day,” says Kim.

Will Telford, a father to a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl said: “Neither child could return to school so I have been working full time and trying to teach them alongside my partner. We found to begin with they were constantly on screens for schoolwork and leisure. It got out of hand so we set up a system where they can have thirty minutes a day on non-educational videos and games but up to an hour or more if it is a school day, on educational games and videos.

“It has worked really well and balanced out the screen time across the day much better. With them being a little older too video games on consoles are also an issue. James would play Fortnite all day if we let him.”

The most important thing to remember though is we are in the middle of a pandemic. If screen time has increased but everyone in your household has remained well both mentally and physically, don’t give yourself a hard time, perhaps just add in more breaks and a better structure to the day if you are concerned.

Giving birth during a pandemic

This was a piece written in July 2020 for my MA portfolio for the University of Lincoln. It remained unpublished on until January 2021 when it had been marked and graded.

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

Covid-19 has changed the way we communicate with each other. Weekly quizzes and get togethers with friends and family remotely soon became the best way of keeping in touch. Speaking to women and mothers about their experiences remotely seemed impossible though, especially given the personal details they were revealing to me.

A slightly panicked house scout to find the tidiest spot ensued as lockdown has ravaged through each room in turn, even the mess is messy. How I long for a fancy bookcase to portray an inaccurate image of intelligence and organisation, just like we are used to seeing on the news. I hope my own pregnancy and children might put their minds at rest as we are members of a club with stretch marks and questionable bladder ability worn like a badge of honour.

My first interview is with Emma Epton from Boston. Emma has a little girl called Libby who is five and has been trying to conceive for a long time for her second child. I have known Emma for over ten years so thankfully it was a good starting point to get used to communicating over Zoom. Once the niceties are over, I could see her face drop as we got onto the subject of pregnancy. Emma had an ectopic pregnancy last year and has lost one of her fallopian tubes after surgery.

“Coronavirus has really put us off trying for a second. I would be so nervous pregnant during a pandemic and it has perhaps made us realise how lucky we already are with our daughter,” she says with a smile.

As the conversation develops she admits that reaching the decision had made her want a second child more than ever.

“It is typical really, it would be a terrible time to be pregnant but I would really be delighted if it did happen. Perhaps though it is for the best if the pandemic keeps restrictions in place for years to come. It might ultimately take the decision out of our hands,” she concludes.

Emma isn’t alone in putting off decisions for starting a family. Initially experts were expecting a baby boom, Nadine Dorries, the MP responsible for Maternity Services, even tweeted back in March “I am wondering how busy we are going to be nine months from now.” Quickly it became clear that people were changing plans though, which isn’t surprising given that most people have increased stress levels, not overly conducive to making a baby.

Next, I compare my own pregnancy with Kirsty Lilly, a mother to two girls, Isabella and Florence, with a third baby on the way.

As the camera flicks on I am relieved to see that she too is bookshelf free as she instantly apologises that the children are running slightly wild so may interrupt the Zoom call. I have a little chuckle as scenes of children interrupting broadcasts have become commonplace on the television. In some ways the new way of working has shown us all in a more natural environment. As she focuses on me, I can see in her eyes she is desperate to know what the children are doing right now. I try and reassure her we can be as stop-start as she likes.

“I am finding the juggling a little bit of a struggle I must say. I am a Human Resources manager and work mainly with people without children so their understanding at times is lacking. Added to this is the fact my husband has chromes disease so we have been shielding limited to the house and garden for months,” she explains.

Kirsty readjusts her screen apologising: “Sorry I hate that I can see myself, despite being only 16 weeks pregnant I think I have developed an extra chin for each week.” I instantly love her as I readjust the maternity leggings currently cutting me in two.

As we are at the same hospital for birth, it is interesting to swap stories of our experiences so far, though I am starting to feel like Kirsty is enjoying being at home a little more than I am.

“When I was told to shield, I was a little relieved. I was only a few weeks pregnant and felt so tired and poorly. With it being my third pregnancy, I already looked bloated and feared everyone might guess. For me it took the pressure off and I could work from home juggling my other children and hibernate,” she concludes.

Kirsty reveals her strangest craving third time pregnant is for beer. Obviously drinking pints of larger is a no-go, so Kirsty has been buying non-alcoholic varieties.

“Having a non-alcoholic beer has really helped curb the craving. I will admit I cracked one open last Thursday afternoon after a conference call and my husband looked at me daggers. Turns out a beer during work hours isn’t socially acceptable even without the alcohol,” she chuckles.

As the call ends, I can’t help but smile at her confident, breezy take on being pregnant for the third time. We both agree that wearing masks to appointments and having to go alone to all the scans is tough. So much so that Kirsty has booked a private scan this week to find out the sex of her baby. For that, her husband is allowed to be in the waiting room, so at least he can sort of be there.

My next interview is with a first-time mother called Sarah Moore who had her baby girl, Lily in April. For Sarah it was easier for her to have a quick phone conversation with follow up messages back and forth on Facebook Messenger. Sarah sounds so tired, I can’t help but feel sorry for her and think back to my own first time. Nothing prepares you for how hard night feeds are the first few months and to face it all with just her partner and no family allowed in her home is a terrifying thought. In Sheffield where she lives you are currently only allowed one birthing partner once active labour is established.

“It was very scary to enter the labour ward to be assessed, whilst in the early stages alone. As this was my first baby neither my partner or I were really sure of when to go to hospital, we followed the advice yet went back and forth to the hospital three times before I was actually in active labour,” says Sarah.

Sarah explains that she didn’t have to wear any form of personal protective equipment but that all midwives and medical staff had gloves, gowns and masks. Her own birth plan largely was followed so for her, pandemic or not, it was successful.

“Once I got into the birthing room and my partner was back with me, I didn’t really notice or think about the pandemic. Midwives were all wearing masks and generally being careful but this didn’t bother me, the only thing that bothered me was that I really wanted my partner and my mum there,” she adds with a sad face emoji.

Sarah stayed in hospital for one night while feeding was established but was happy to get home the next day and be reunited as a family. The following weeks did however prove hard for her as she had to drive to hospital for all routine appointments. Normally the visits take place in your own home.

“This really was a struggle as my partner doesn’t drive and I had to attend alone so it was sore to drive and carry the car seat alone,” says Sarah.

I have kept in touch with Sarah over the last few weeks and was delighted to hear that she was able to stay with family under the new guidelines that came in on 4 July. Life as a family of three has been a struggle and she really felt her mental health was suffering not being able to spend time with family and friends.

For Charlotte Goodley, the pandemic had less of an impact on birth as she was booked for an elective cesarean section. Charlotte is a great friend who I met doing pregnancy yoga a few years ago with her first-born Aspen. Charlotte gave birth to Orla in April.

As a midwife herself, I have to ask if she was relieved to have timed her pregnancy seemingly so well to avoid working during the pandemic.

“I really wouldn’t have minded working, I am young, fit and healthy so hopefully it wouldn’t have caused too much of a problem if I had contracted it. I feel a little guilty really that my friends are working and I am not. Especially because I slightly changed my career to sonography in later years and the clinic has had to close due to staffing a lot over the last few weeks,” says Charlotte.

Being a midwife and giving birth in the same environment can have its perks as Charlotte was able to pick the Surgeon and midwife staff. The operating room looked exactly the same as a high level of PPE is normal in the sterile environment.

Visibly upset, Charlotte does admit that while she was fully prepared and knew exactly what was happening at all times, her daughter had to spend time on the neo-natal ward.

“Nothing can prepare you for that, no matter how many times you have been on the other side of it reassuring mums all will be ok. It was completely heart breaking being split from Orla for the first few hours of her life,” Charlotte adds.

Whilst the pandemic has undoubtably had an impact on the mental health of the mother’s I have spoken to for this article, it is really comforting to know that the births for the most part have gone as expected.

I did manage to speak to a midwife to get the medical point of view, though this unfortunately was a quick phone call and then a series of emails due to her work schedule. The majority of emails came through in the middle of the night between shifts.

Amy works for the United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust and her story on her time working during the pandemic is hard to read as I can feel the anger and despair coming through the email.

The PPE shortages were all over the news at the start of the pandemic and though Amy always had enough access to PPE, the lack of testing directly impacted her.

“Back in late March I had a really sore throat and perhaps the worst headache I have ever had. I spoke to the Matron on the ward and begged to be tested as I really thought it was likely I had coronavirus but because I didn’t have a cough or temperature and access to testing was so limited, I was told no and had to continue to work,” says Amy.

The reality of work and a pandemic is shocking as some hospitals do not have access to excess staff so had Amy and others had gone off poorly, it would have potentially resulted in a short term closure for expectant mothers.

“Now testing is more widely available we have more access and an anti-body test has shown I did have coronavirus. I feel awful imagining who I could have infected, but what could I do?” she adds.

The role of the midwife has altered significantly as they are alone with birthing mothers a lot more as fathers wait outside until active labour is established. For Amy this doesn’t pose as much as a problem as the PPE they have to wear.

Amy explains: “I find the PPE really hard because as a midwife you are very close to the women. They hold on to you for support and sometimes want a hug. You rely on expressions from your eyes instead of greeting with a smile. It’s like the PPE acts like a barrier between you and the woman which is awful as a midwife is all about being ‘with women.’”

I am surprised to read that there is no set infrastructure or processes to check on the midwives’ mental health, instead Amy thinks she would approach the Matron if things were getting on top of her. Given shortages and the way she had to work poorly, I am not overly confident she could get access to mental health support if she needed it.

“I really can’t wait for things to go back to normal, the only plus for me is fathers can no longer stay the night. It can really impact breast feeding and establishing that bond between mother and baby. Often parents chat through the night which can keep other mothers awake. We have also found that the mothers all bond between bays which has been lovely to see,” Amy adds.

Writing this article remotely was difficult but in all honesty, it was the nicest few hours I have spent all lockdown, nattering into a computer screen with friends and strangers alike. As I prepare for my own birth in November I hope the world looks a little different, though I am comforted by the women I have spoken to that my own experience should still be the birth I want it to be.

Top tips to help you prepare for your own birth during a pandemic

1)Plan your ideal birth but make sure you have a few back up plans incase things do not go the way you expected.

Annette Ashford, owner of the Village Midwives, a private midwifery service said: “One thing I would say is there are elements you can control and elements you can’t. Try to focus on those you can control, for example, the type of birth you want and how you can try and make that happen or adapt when things change.”

2)Add a daily practice of yoga into your routine. This can be as little as ten minutes but it can help with strength and help focus your mind ready for the birth.

3)Try Hypnobirthing. Celebrities and supposedly even royalty have long backed Hypnobirthing as a fantastic way of giving birth, a coveted endorsement that might suggest it’s worth a try. With the help of MP3 tracks, breathing techniques, familiar scents, vision boards and minimal intervention it can help control the birthing environment.

4)If a homebirth is an option for you, it is worth considering to avoid hospitals. For a homebirth two local midwives come to your house and help you labour wherever you feel comfortable. Often mothers opt for an inflatable birthing pool.

5)Consider a Doula for your birthing experience. A Doula is a birthing partner you pay for who is an expert in advocating your rights and wishes during birth. Though it can be an expensive luxury, with other children potentially at home and less family and friends able to offer childcare support, it is an option to consider.

6)Get used to wearing a mask for periods of time at home so appointments are less daunting with a mask on.

7)Be prepared to throw all your principals out the window and if you need medical intervention or drugs to get you through the birth, accept that it is ok to deviate from your birth plan to do what is right for you and your baby.

8)Make yourself up a little care package with your favourite snacks in, face creams, magazines, drinks, and any other home comforts. You might not use it during the birth but it will come in handy afterwards.

9)If the NHS in your area is no longer offering antenatal classes, book with a private midwife offering home visits or zoom calls.

10)Remember that things might be a little different but it will be a year to remember and it is exciting you will always be a part of it giving birth.

Sending your child back to school (June 2020)

This piece was written in June 2020 and formed part of my portfolio of work for the University of Lincoln. It remained unpublished until January 2021 on, after my final grade had been awarded.

Sending your child back to school

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

With coronavirus still disrupting our lives in countless ways, there is a possibility you are now able to send your children back to school and their Early Years setting. We have spoken to some experts to try and gain an insight into the reasons why some year groups are back, what has changed, if it is safe to send your children and what teachers and parents are thinking.

Who is back in school?

Some children from Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are heading back to school for their third week, though it is estimated by the National Foundation for Educational Research only 54-per-cent of eligible children are in school and as little as 52-per-cent of schools are re-open for pupils. To bombard you with further statistics, according to the Department for Education as of June 4 the number of children in school only represented 6.9-per-cent of the total number of children normally in education across all years. It is clear therefore that only a tiny proportion of children are back in education.

What changes are in place?

Classes have to be in bubbles of no more than 15 pupils who are taught by the same teaching staff and do not come into contact with other children or staff outside of their bubble. With young children it has been taken into account that social distancing will not always be possible so instead the focus is on hand washing very frequently and sneezing and coughing into a tissue and binning it to avoid spreading germs.

Soft furnishings have been removed from classrooms and children are sitting at their own desks spaced out across the classroom with their own stationary.

“At my child’s school the teacher has done the Reception children little packs of stationary, bricks and Lego which is disinfected regularly and stays on their desk all week.

“We also have to send them in clean clothes every day and only their lunch boxes and drinks can come from home,” says Isabella Hicks, mother to Rupert, aged five.

Children eat in their bubbles in their classrooms and have a specific toilet only their bubble can use. Outdoor learning is encouraged as much as possible as scientists believe the transmission rate outdoors is much lower, especially at a distance of two metres and there are staggered drop-offs and pickups to minimise adult contact.

Testing is available to all staff and children, and if a child becomes unwell, they are to be tested as soon as possible. The rest of the bubble are likely to be asked to self-isolate for 7 days or more or until the result of the test comes back.

Why those year groups?

The focus from the government is getting children back in the classroom from transition year groups as it is feared the longer they are out of the classroom, the further they will fall behind. The government produced a 50-page document and explained the reasoning behind the year groups.

“Children in Reception and Year 1 are at the very beginning of their school career and are mastering the essential basics, including counting and the fundamentals of reading and writing, and learning to socialise with their peers.

“Year 6 children are finishing Key Stage 2 and are preparing for the transition to secondary school and will benefit immensely from time with their friends and teachers to ensure they are ready,” says the report.

Helen Childerhouse, an educational expert from the University of Lincoln, isn’t convinced by the year groups chosen to return.

“It seems strange to send Year 6 pupils back into their primary schools.  I would have suggested that they attend transition sessions at the secondary school they will be attending in September.

“Early years children are unable to follow social distancing expectations due to their age and lack of understanding and they require much greater management. I would have expected Key Stage 2 and secondary pupils to return first,” she remarks.

When will other years return?

Plans for the rest of primary aged children to return before the summer break have been scrapped by the government in favour of schools having more flexibility to open if they feel they can safely do so. This has caused a lot of controversy since its announcement on June 10 as it will mean some children are out of education for six months assuming they can safely return by September. However, this isn’t a certainty.

Private schools with smaller class sizes have the room to open for more children but without clear guidance on how to do this from the government, insurance companies will not sanction more children attending.

Headteacher Claire Ogden of Ayscoughfee Hall School, a fee paying prep school in Spalding, said: “I would love to get more children back in school, we have worked out numerous scenarios to facilitate this from a rota of classes attending bi-weekly, to full attendance for all if the numbers are low enough. The issue we have though is our insurance company will only act on clear advice from the government on how to operate this safely and at the moment, this is not forthcoming. Having the flexibility to open if we have room isn’t enough and we need more information,” explains Claire.

Under current guidelines from the government, children in each bubble have their own toilet separate from other bubbles with a one in, one out system.  Most schools do not have the capacity to adhere to this rule with more children in school.

Is it safe to send my child back to nursery or school?

Ask two scientists and you will get two different answers as unfortunately so much is still unknown about the virus. Covid-19 has created a huge amount of debate on transmission amongst children, and it still isn’t clear if children infect adults at the same rate as adults transmit the disease. What is clear, though, is that the virus isn’t as deadly for children with just three children under the age of 15 sadly passing away since the start of the outbreak according to official government statistics, which demonstrates the risk to life for children under 15-years-old is extremely minimal.

Dr Walter Lucchesi, a lecturer in Biomedical Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, has a special interest in virology and explains this further. “In this particular case of SARS-cov 2 children might spread the virus at different rate, similar to being less prone to develop COVID19; a protection that so far is not fully explained but clearly observed. This is a question mark that will need to be resolved.

“We should always remember the original guidelines of physical distancing, minimising interactions and simple hygiene such as washing hands, not touching your face and not sharing glasses or food. Children have already missed out on education and essential social activities with social and psychological impact, so it is important to try and get them back safely.”

Without a vaccine, living with coronavirus will become a necessity, potentially for years to come. The choice to keep children at home for their safety might have to be a long-term decision which is hard for working parents.

“If SARScov2 has got a seasonal pattern, which personally I predict it will have, then it is likely that it could come back in late autumn or early winter. Therefore, scenarios and models that will help us to tackle this perspective are essential and the word is preparedness,” says Dr Lucchesi.

Many schools have decided to remain closed to all children other than those of keyworkers beyond June 1 as they did not feel they could safely re-open yet. Some of those schools did re-open this week for more children, suggesting that, by the summer holidays, more children from the transition year groups may return to school as parent’s views soften.

“I would always suggest that health and safety have priority over curricular delivery. Schools provide so much more than just education and this is not always acknowledged.  Schools have the privilege of supporting, teaching and caring for parents most precious treasure and it is their duty to ensure that children and their families are safe in the first instance,” says Helen Childerhouse.

What are teachers saying?

A Year 1 teacher who regularly posts on Netmums under the name WoWsers16 spoke to us about her experience so far: “I have loved my first few weeks back. I have a class of 28 and 16 have returned so we have put them into two bubbles of 8 as we believe more will be back in the coming weeks.

“Our headteacher has done an amazing risk assessment which focusses on the wellbeing of staff and children. Whilst we are doing the core lessons to catch children back up, we have shifted our focus to wellbeing and mindfulness.”

Emily Patman, a Reception teacher, also confirmed the focus has been on mental health. “It is important to make the children feel comfortable in their surroundings as it is quite different. We regularly do a feelings circle and we have done lots of songs and activities about coronavirus and why we are socially distancing. The children have taken to it so well and I am comfortable to teach under the current guidelines from our headteacher,” she says.

What are parents saying?

The debate on school social WhatsApp groups has been extensive and at times personal and negative. Laura Andrew, a mother to two boys, decided to send her four-year-old back to school.

“It felt heated in the group chat for our year. Those that had chosen to return our children were being judged by certain people who were not. Especially when you are being sent article links and information informing you that your children are being used as guinea pigs,” remarks Laura.

Kate Reed, a mother to two from Boston, decided to keep both her children at home. “Knowing my son, I don’t know how he would get on with social distancing and I felt it might have been a bit stressful for the teachers to have to patrol them all the time. Having said that he would love to go back to school, he loves learning at school, but not so much at home.”

Roxanne Wallis, a mother of two boys from Yaxley, has also decided to keep her children at home. “I do not wish to send either back to their settings. I think my primary concern at the moment is the ability for teachers to keep high enough levels of hygiene up with many students in an age group not particularly known for their exceptional hygiene. Added to that concern is the fact that I am pregnant and it’s making me more risk averse to the situation. My fear is that we are being lifted out of a severe lockdown too early and this is raising the probability of a second wave.

“If the government had decided to charge parents, I would have made the decision to home-school long-term as I am not sending them back in September if the situation remains the same as it is now,” adds Roxanne.

Sandie Hutchinson decided to keep her six-year-old boy at home. “He was a very poorly baby so looking at the reports in the media, I felt I couldn’t bring myself to send him, fearing the worst.

“The first week only five children returned to his Year 1 class but he was so upset to be missing out, I decided to send him the second week and he is so much happier back at school. A further five parents also decided to send. I guess we just wanted to wait and see how the first week went for other parents,” explains Sandie.

What if I keep my children off, will they be disadvantaged?

A huge catch-up plan is currently being devised by Educational Secretary Gavin Williamson in an attempt to bring children back to an even level when they can return. The initial part of the plan is to make internet free and accessible for all children to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to learning.

Teacher Sharon Clarke, a supply teacher with a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, explains what she thinks will need to happen when children return. “Children having more than six months out of education and varying levels of parental input from lots of home-learning to none will need to have a focused entry back into education. The government will have to drop the levels of expected learning to make this effective, and instead I think teaching will have to return to much more traditional, grassroot methods for core subjects. There is so much pressure on teachers to meet targets but in order to ensure children do not fall behind there will have to be time to focus on reading, writing, maths and English initially, going over and over until they are back to the level of understanding expected,” she says.

Helen, the educational expert, expands on this further. “Circumstances will play a huge part in the level of support and pastoral and academic input children need.  Teachers are incredibly skilled at shaping their provision to meet the needs of individual children.  I feel that the focus should be on pastoral and social support in the first instance.  Children are not able to learn academically if they are unhappy, insecure, frightened or unsettled.”

With so much uncertainty around coronavirus and a clear message of “stay home” from the government for so long, it is unsurprising parents are divided and nervous about their children returning to education. The government have a long way to go to get schools ready for more children by September and it is likely that education will be disrupted for a long time to come as rates of infection rise and fall in certain areas across the winter months. It is important to make the right decision for your own family and take advantage of the educational resources available if you are home-schooling to keep your children learning, though their mental health is equally as important at such a troubling time. Tag us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know your own story about school and if you have sent your children back or are continuing to home-school.