Care and Feeding

I Have No Idea How to Parent My Toddler Through This New Phase of the Pandemic

After two years of this, and without vaccine approval for kids under 5, I feel like my risk-assessment software is broken.

A preschool age child wears a mask.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

What are parents of the not-yet-vaccine-eligible 0-to-5 crowd supposed to be doing right now? We have an almost-3-year-old who hasn’t had anything like a normal childhood. We just started letting him see vaccinated family members and having him do some outdoor activities with other kids. Ever since older children became eligible for vaccines, we’ve been hopeful that his group would be right around the corner. The recent news that it might be another six months until they even have full data for this group—paired with the spread of omicron and the fact that vaccines aren’t stopping its transmission—has been deflating. We are in an area with very high vaccination rates, but which is seeing one of the highest spikes of omicron in the country. I feel like my risk-assessment software is broken after two years of this. I know that kids are supposedly at lower risk for serious illness, but COVID is still a top cause of death for young children. I’m also worried about the potential for long-term health effects for children who contract the virus. Every article I read ends with something like “vaccinations will almost certainly prevent serious illness,” which is great for everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated, but cold comfort for those of us with babies and toddlers. It seems as though risk-free is no longer possible, but what activities should we prioritize? What should we hold off on? What are the risks of more months of isolation versus the potential for infection? I’ve found very little guidance out there. Can you provide any?

— Still Pandemic Parenting

Dear Still Pandemic Parenting,

Because I am an advice columnist and not an epidemiologist—and because even the epidemiologists can’t offer any guarantees right now—the best I can do it point you to some commonsense resources, like this one from the New York Times, in which an epidemiologist and a pediatrician/scientist weigh in and pay at least some attention to the plight of those with kids too young to be vaccinated. The bottom line, for them: “What you should do depends on your risk tolerance, your ability to make activities safer and your ability to handle an infection if you get one.” The epidemiologist, Jennifer Nuzzo, who has two children, says that before her kids were able to be vaccinated (the younger one is now 5), she “prioritized going places and doing things that were most important to us as a family [emphasis mine].” The Johns Hopkins Children’s Center also provides some guidelines specific to children under 5. The Hopkins pediatrician, Aaron Milstone, emphasizes the importance of maintaining physical distancing from anyone outside your household and keeping the number of people with whom your children come into contact—and the duration of their time with them—as low as possible.

All I can add to this, along with my sympathy (which is vast), is what I think I would do, in your shoes. I would socialize outdoors only, and only with families that are fully vaccinated (and boosted, if they are old enough to be eligible for a booster). I would keep these visits short, and I would do my best to visit with the same people repeatedly, rather than constantly expanding the social circle around my unvaccinated child. And I would do my best to keep the children masked (yes, even outdoors). I’ve seen for myself, in the children of my friends, that it is indeed possible for them to play and have fun while masked.

Of course, if we want to make absolutely sure none of us—vaxed and boosted or too young to be vaccinated at all—contract the virus, we have to stay at home. I did that for a long time. So did my now 88-year-old mother. Neither she nor I do that anymore. The balance of caring for our mental health and our physical health has tipped after so much isolation. So I would say that in addition to vaccinating everyone who is eligible and masking when we are out and about, each of us must weigh our own risk tolerance—which may vary from day to day. If I were you, I’d avoid crowds and choose venues and playmates carefully. And until your toddler can be fully vaccinated, I’d avoid any sort of indoor gathering. I’d take heart in this latest news about omicron not causing severe illness in children. I hope this guidance helps. I am so deeply sorry you are in this predicament.


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