Impact of COVID-19 restrictions on pre-school children’s eating, activity and sleep behaviours: a qualitative study

Joanne Clarke, R Kipping, S Chambers, K Willis, H Taylor, R Brophy , K Hannam , SA Simpson, R Langford

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Objectives: In spring 2020, the first COVID-19 national lockdown placed unprecedented restrictions on the behaviour and movements of the UK population. Citizens were ordered to ‘stay at home’, only allowed to leave their houses to buy essential supplies, attend medical appointments or exercise once a day. We explored how lockdown and its subsequent easing changed young children’s everyday activities, eating and sleep habits to gain insight into the impact for health and well-being.

Design: In-depth qualitative interviews; data analysed using thematic analysis.

Setting: South West and West Midlands of England.

Participants: Twenty parents (16 mothers; 4 fathers) of preschool-age children (3–5 years) due to start school in September 2020. Forty per cent of the sample were from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds and half lived in the most deprived areas.

Results: Children’s activity, screen time, eating and sleep routines had been disrupted. Parents reported children ate more snacks, but families also spent more time preparing meals and eating together. Most parents reported a reduction in their children’s physical activity and an increase in screen time, which some linked to difficulties in getting their child to sleep. Parents sometimes expressed guilt about changes in activity, screen time and snacking over lockdown. Most felt these changes would be temporary, though others worried about re-establishing healthy routines.

Conclusions: Parents reported that lockdown negatively impacted on preschool children’s eating, activity and sleep routines. While some positive changes were identified, many participants described lack of routines, habits and boundaries which may have been detrimental for child health and development. Guidance and support for families during COVID-19 restrictions could be valuable to help maintain healthy activity, eating, screen time and sleeping routines to protect child health and ensure unhealthy habits are not adopted.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere051497
JournalBMJ open
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 18 Oct 2021


  • COVID-19
  • nutrition & dietetics
  • paediatrics
  • public health
  • qualitative research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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