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Creating bubbles that work for families and kids

See also: Is it time to expand your “bubble?”

A school year that concluded months early. No more daycare. An abrupt end to sports, play dates, sleepovers, and visits with Grandma.

While social distancing and self-isolation has been challenging for all of us, it’s been uniquely difficult for children, parents, and their extended families, say MIT Medical Pediatricians Rosemarie Roqué Gordon and Ed Levy. 

Illustration of two houses surrounded by one white picket fence with several children and adults and a dog in the enclosed yard

Gordon, whose practice includes many infants and toddlers, notes that while self-isolating has given some parents with newborns a unique opportunity to bond as a family, others have struggled without the support they had been counting on from grandparents and other relatives. “I worry about the isolation that these new parents might be feeling,” she says, “and how their grief will be experienced by their infant.”

Levy echoes these concerns. Childcare has been a dilemma for many parents of younger kids, he notes, especially when both parents need to work from home. “In those situations, it can be difficult to make sure a young child gets all the attention and stimulation they need,” he says. “And many kids of all ages are missing the opportunity to socialize with peers.”

Gordon is particularly concerned about children who were already struggling. “It’s an especially tough time for kids who were anxious long before the pandemic began,” she says. “Some of the coping strategies they relied on before the virus — routines at school, sports, socializing with friends, meeting with the school guidance counselor — have disappeared.”

Both pediatricians have started talking with their patients’ families about forming “social bubbles” — or “quarantine pods” — with relatives or other families. A bubble, or pod, is defined as a small social network, generally 10 individuals or fewer, who have agreed to limit their in-person social activities only to each other, usually without taking any special precautions. Outside of the group, members agree to follow recommended precautions such as social distancing and masking, along with any other pod-specific rules. Pods can provide kids with the companionship of peers and much-needed opportunities for play and socialization. For parents, they may offer the chance to share childcare and socialize with other adults. “I think pods are a great solution,” Levy says, “but the negotiations are hard.”

That may be putting it mildly. If you’re thinking about broaching the bubble idea with another family, you’ll want it to be a family who you believe to be taking the same careful precautions as yours. But there’s still the awkwardness of discussing details of your daily lives with someone outside of your immediate household and negotiating the rules you’ll all agree to follow.

Agreeing on a trial period — and no hard feelings if it doesn’t work out — can give both families an out if this particular bubble doesn’t meet their needs or expectations. Just be sure to take a two-week break to self-isolate before “bubbling” with a new family or group. 

By definition, individuals should belong to just one bubble at a time, but flexibility is often necessary when children are involved. For example, with the knowledge and approval of everyone involved, children living in two different households may participate in both parent’s social bubbles, so they don’t have to choose between the two.

Many families also want their children to be able to spend time with both peers and older relatives, such as grandparents, who are at higher risk of complications from the virus. A carefully chosen bubble may be able to accommodate both types of interactions without undue risk, Levy says. “Another strategy is something I would call ‘sequencing,’” he explains. “In this scenario, the child would spend some number of days interacting with peers, and then 14 days in isolation before seeing the grandparents.” 

Keeping interactions outdoors reduces risk even more. In one study of more than 7,300 cases in China, just one was connected to outdoor transmission. “The weather this time of year offers children and families a perfect opportunity to expand connections,” Levy says. “We know that this virus disperses relatively quickly in the air and is sensitive to UV light. And respiratory viruses, in general, do not spread as well when humidity is between 30 and 80 percent.” Of course, if you’re part of a bubble, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to playgrounds, beaches, and other outside areas where your kids might come into close, if fleeting, contact with other children.

These kinds of negotiated relationships are something few of us could have imagined six months ago, but they are likely to become a way of life, at least for the foreseeable future. “The virus will continue to pose risks,” Levy says, “But I feel strongly that we need to find ways to honor the developmental needs of younger and older children while reducing those risks as much as possible.” 

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