TORONTO — More babies are being brought into hospitals with serious head trauma and fractures in recent months, according to figures compiled by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), an alarming trend that doctors believe is associated with the challenges parents and caregivers face without additional support under lockdown.
Since September, the hospital says it has seen more than twice as many babies arriving with serious injuries, confirming fears that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the most vulnerable members of society and the families who care for them.
“I’ve actually seen a doubling of the number of kids as compared to the year before … Babies under one coming with types of injuries that, really, they can’t cause themselves,” said Dr. Michelle Ward, a pediatrician and head of the division for Child and Youth Protection at CHEO.
These include broken bones, bleeding around the brain, bleeding at the back of the eyes, or an injury to the brain itself. While older children can often explain how an injury was received or tell an adult if there are issues at home, abuse on babies are only uncovered when there is a critical injury — or in some cases, death.
The figures prompted CHEO, the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, and Ottawa Public Health to work together to raise awareness on this issue and remind caregivers to be gentle. Part of the group’s messaging is to let struggling parents and caregivers know that it is normal to feel overwhelmed, and that asking for support is an extremely important part of good parenting.
“The reason and purpose for this media release was to … increase awareness for the children, youth and families that they aren’t alone, that there is support, and that if they are struggling, experiencing distress, to reach out and call for help. There’s no shame or embarrassment to reaching out,” said Kelly Raymond, the executive director for the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa.
Ward says the hospital has seen up to two or three cases in any given week, a stark contrast from before the pandemic. Over a six-month period last fall and winter, a total of eight babies were brought in with these kinds of severe injuries. This year, they have already seen 20.
It’s the first time in her 16 years at CHEO that she has seen so many cases at once. “Typically it’s a handful a year. So this is really a departure,” she said.
“That really worries me. These are serious injuries that can have lifelong consequences.”
Ward’s concerns prompted her to contact colleagues elsewhere in Alberta and Ontario. They too are reporting similar trends and are collecting data on the issue, she says. Notably, places that had more restrictions in place were the ones that appeared to be seeing this particular trend.
“A couple of colleagues in places that have not seen the same kind of restrictions, for example in the Maritimes, have not seen this as much,” Ward said.
Evidence this past year from all over the world has already shown increases in domestic violence and abuse as vulnerable victims are trapped at home under often stressful conditions — homeschooling, working from home, a lost job, and financial difficulties, for example.
In Canada, there is an overall decrease in the number of cases of child abuse and neglect being reported, Ward said, primarily because they are not getting referrals for children from schools this year due to closures.
Raymond says the agency has seen a slight increase in the number of children and youth being exposed to intimate partner violence as well, with children and youth witnessing incidents of domestic abuse or emotional harm between parents.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
Parents used to be able to reach out to friends and family, or even gather with other parents when they felt overwhelmed — but not during this pandemic. It takes a village to raise a child, but the pandemic can seem like the village is gone when it is not, said Ward.
“Parents who are struggling with their infants, probably feel very isolated and alone and feeling like there’s no support for them. And again this message is really to tell those parents, you’re not alone, there is help … even the best of us struggle,” said Raymond, adding that even families that have stronger and healthier social networks struggle.
“No one anticipated and expected to be homeschooling their children and youth, for this period of time, having to navigate and work with different technologies, and keeping children and youth occupied during long periods of time while the parents themselves have had to go to work and continue their work.”
There are things parents can do before the worst happens, Ward says. When you are calm and not feeling overwhelmed, make a plan for what you will do when you feel like you are reaching a breaking point. This might include handing the baby off to someone else, or putting the baby down safely to go for a walk around the house or take a shower. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do when a situation becomes too much, she says, including reaching out to the community for help if necessary.
“People are being asked to stay home for good reason. But anyone who’s had a baby knows how hard those first few months are,” Ward said, noting that these traumatic injuries can happen in just a few short seconds of frustration even for normally great parents.
“So it is really a huge burden on these parents to be so isolated and caring for very young babies … it’s when you don’t have any more reserve and your coping mechanisms fail, that’s when these kinds of things happen.”
If you have concerns for the safety or well-being of a child, or if you are a caregiver in need of support to keep your child safe, the following resources are available:
Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa: 613-747-7800