More than 63,000 babies are estimated to have been born into war in Ukraine in the past two months and conditions that may impact their long term mental health.
These newborns join the millions of children put at heightened risk of grave physical harm and lifelong psychological trauma from violence, loss, and displacement, since the escalation of the war on 24 February and with fighting increasing in the east of the country.
Save the Children is calling for an immediate end to the violence as the only way to protect children from physical and psychological harm. It is also the only way to safely reach the 12 million people across Ukraine in desperate need of critical humanitarian assistance to survive[ii].
The escalation has caused the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since World War Two, with five million now having fled Ukraine. At least two thirds of the country’s 7.5 million children have fled their homes and more than 450 children been killed or injured.
Save the Children said the escalation has meant 63,000 babies born into conditions that could have negative lifelong impacts. New mothers are struggling to bond with their babies due to severe psychological distress, according to Save the Children. This can have a negative and sometimes permanent impact on babies’ attachment to their mothers and their subsequent development. Medical staff have also reported an increase in the number of babies being born prematurely.
Morgan MacDonald, Save the Children’s mental health and psychosocial support adviser with the Emergency Health Unit, said:
“We know that stress can impact a mother’s ability to breastfeed, whether as a result of hormonal changes or lack of confidence. Obviously being in a war zone brings on a huge amount of distress which can impact the body physically as well as mentally, including potentially disrupting the ability to produce breastmilk. It can also prevent mothers from recognizing and responding to the needs of their babies.
"One of the most important aspects to a parent-child relationship is attachment, and when you lack that parent-child bonding it is a huge developmental problem that can create issues throughout that baby’s life. Attachment disorders are one of the most serious mental health issues that we face – our brain development and growth are based on healthy attachment to caregivers.
“Supporting mothers to try to breastfeed can actually be a life-saving intervention. But the fact that we are seeing this happen in the first place is incredibly alarming.”
Save the Children staff are already seeing thee psychological and emotional impacts of war on the children they are meeting, with needs assessments identifying psychological support as one of the biggest priorities in the response[iii]. Staff and partners within Ukraine have reported children arriving at reception centres showing worrying signs of severe distress. One child psychologist in Zaporizhzhia, central-east Ukraine, described a nine-year-old boy who arrived with shrapnel wounds in his leg but was so distressed that he would not allow the medical team to come anywhere near him for treatment[iv].
In the same reception centre, it is sometimes the children who take on the parental role, such as a five-year-old girl who calmed down her mother who was panicking after misplacing her phone.
The staff and volunteers who have been supporting people who have fled their homes across the country are also caught up in this war and are experiencing signs of burnout themselves, Save the Children said.
Save the Children’s Country Director in Ukraine, Pete Walsh, said:
“At Save the Children, we know from research in other war zones that conflict can cause long-term harm to children’s mental and physical health. Put simply, children born into war are born into devastation. Unless this war ends, more than 63,000 new lives are at risk of death, injury, physical and psychological trauma. At the same time, we know that given the right conditions and support children have an amazing resilience which can allow them to recover.
“Without a political solution to this crisis, this number will continue to grow. Enough is enough. This war needs to end so that children have a chance to recover and no longer have to go through these unimaginable experiences.”
[i] The population of Ukraine is currently 43.19m. The UN projection for birth rate in 2022 is 8.816 births per 1,000. We divided 43.19 million by 1000, which is 43,190. We then multiplied this figure by 8.816 to get to 380,763.04: the total number of babies born throughout 2022 using the UN’s current projected birth rate. We divided this by 12 to get to the monthly average figure of 31,730.2533. We then multiplied this by two, to get to a total of 63,460.5067. Rounding up this figure would be 63,461.
[iii] Save the Children is setting up partnerships with grassroots organisations, supporting with child-friendly spaces, training in nutrition and maternal bonding.
[iv] Save the Children is partnering with this psychologist, providing funding for services to support children who are experiencing distress.