New Portrait from the Early Childhood Observatory – How are Québec's youngest children faring? How has the pandemic affected their lives?

MONTRÉAL, Nov. 16, 2021 /CNW Telbec/ – This morning, as part of Early Childhood Week, the Early Childhood Observatory (Observatoire des tout-petits) launched its most recent Portrait: How are Québec’s youngest children faring? This report presents the most recent data available on conditions surrounding childbirth, early childhood development, and children’s physical and mental health. This year’s Portrait also includes a review of the latest studies on the effects of the pandemic on young children and their families.

“The pandemic has had many repercussions on the living conditions of young children and their families, especially those who were already in situations of vulnerability before the health crisis. More than ever, it is crucial that we implement mutually consistent measures aimed at reducing social inequality and giving every child the opportunity to develop their full potential. The choices we make as a society over the next few years will be decisive, which is why it is important to clearly document the issues,” explained Fannie Dagenais, Director of the Early Childhood Observatory.

The latest Early Childhood Observatory Portrait allowed us to assess how the health and development of children between 0 and 5 years of age have evolved since our first portrait on the same theme was published in 2017 and, more broadly, over the past ten years. The Portrait highlights some good news as well as causes for concern, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has had a negative impact on diet quality, screen time, families’ financial situation and their ability to obtain healthy food, the mental health of children and their parents, and domestic violence. Some of these effects have been more pronounced among children living in disadvantaged environments.

Pregnancy and childbirth: positive developments and worrying aspects      
The Portrait presents plenty of good news on the health of newborns. For example, the stillbirth rate in Québec (7 deaths for every 1,000 births) is well below the target set by the World Health Organization (10 out of 100). Studies done during the past year have also shown that the COVID-19 virus has little effect on newborns and that the risk of transmission between a pregnant mother and her newborn is low—between 1.5% et 5%.

The Portrait tells us, however, that certain factors surrounding pregnancy and childbirth continue to be cause for concern. The Cesarean birth rate increased progressively between 2002 and 2018, rising from 20.9% to 25.5%, which is above the ideal rate of 10 to 15% recommended by the WHO. Moreover, many mothers stop breastfeeding during the first few months, which may indicate barriers to breastfeeding. The WHO recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Another worrying development is the degree of violence against women during the prenatal period. According to the latest available data (2018)—prior to the pandemic—10.9% of mothers of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years were victims of intimate partner violence while they were pregnant, and we now know that there has been a substantial increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 health crisis in several countries as well as Québec. 

Young children’s physical health: keeping an eye on living habits
The Portrait also contains encouraging information on children’s physical health. In 2019, for example, almost all 1-year-olds (97%) had received all the recommended vaccines for the first year of life, which is a significant increase over 2006 figures. Also, based on data compiled during the past year, the risk of being hospitalized for COVID-19 is very low among children. No deaths due to the virus were reported in children between the ages of 0 and 5 in Québec.

Certain data on young children’s physical health will need to be monitored, however. Between 2016 and 2019, 40% of children between the ages of 3 and 5 did not comply with physical activity directives and slightly over half (52%) exceeded recommended screen times. Studies to date have shown that the health crisis has been associated with a significant decrease in physical activity in children of all ages combined with an increase in sedentary activities (time sitting down, screen time).

Furthermore, loss of employment resulting from the pandemic has undermined the financial equilibrium of many families, who have had to turn to food banks for assistance. Studies have also observed a decline in the quality of children’s diets, especially in low-income households. On the other hand, certain favourable changes have been noted in more privileged families, including an increase in the average amount of time spent cooking at home. Finally, in 2020, less than one-quarter of children between the ages of 0 and 5 (24.2%) had their teeth examined by a dentist under the Québec health insurance’s (RAMQ) dental care program. The corresponding figure for 2016 was 30.6%.

Consequences of the pandemic on young children’s mental health
The mental health of Québec’s youngest children is a cause for concern. In 2019-2020, 1,696 children between 1 and 5 years had received a diagnosis of anxiety and depression disorders, mainly social phobia, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder and depression.

Children are among those whose mental health declined the most significantly during the COVID-19 health crisis. Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to studies done in many countries, there has been an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression and behavioural disorders in children and a decrease in their attention skills as well as in the quantity and quality of their sleep. The accumulation of sources of stress within families may have contributed to an increased risk of mental health problems in young children during the pandemic, especially financial stress caused by the crisis, difficulty in accessing mental health resources (for both children and their parents), and families’ social isolation.

Early childhood development: young children who need support
Finally, the Portrait looks at the development of children entering kindergarten. Based on the latest available data (2017), a little more than one kindergartner out of four (27.7%) is vulnerable in at least one domain of development. Moreover, the proportion of children who are vulnerable in at least one developmental domain is higher among those living in households considered to be low-income (41%), as compared to their counterparts in households that are not in the low-income category (23%).

The Portrait reminds us that a significant number of children in Québec have special needs. In 2016-2017, 4,888 children enrolled in 5-year-old kindergarten in the public system were living with disabilities or adjustment difficulties, accounting for 5.8% of total enrolment. In 2019-2020, 4,877 children between the ages of 1 and 5 had received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and 2,708 children in the same age group had received a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADHD).

How can we help every child to develop their full potential?
It is possible to take collective action on behalf of all young children living in Québec. The scientific literature has identified many possibilities for group efforts that would help children to develop their full potential. For example, pregnancy declaration systems enable doctors and midwives to systematically refer every pregnant woman to a health establishment in the territory where she lives. She is then contacted by a nurse, who proposes services based on her needs or situation. It is also possible to foster the development of children in situations of vulnerability by providing them with access to quality educational childcare services. Taxing sugary drinks or creating safe spaces for physical activity in municipalities can help children develop healthy living habits. Finally, awareness campaigns on the importance of looking after young children’s dental and oral health could encourage parents to visit the dentist with their child.

The mission of the Early Childhood Observatory, a project of the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation, is to communicate the current state of knowledge in order to promote informed decision-making on the subject of early childhood in Québec. Our goal is to ensure that every young child living in the province has access to conditions that will enable them to develop their full potential, regardless of where they were born or where they are growing up.

Source: Observatoire des tout-petits / Early Childhood Observatory

SOURCE Observatoire des tout-petits

New Portrait from the Early Childhood Observatory - How are Québec's youngest children faring? How has the pandemic affected their lives? WeeklyReviewer

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