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Research is emerging that some babies are developing differently than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic — not because of exposure to Covid itself, but likely because of stress and social isolation.
Children born during the pandemic have reduced verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance compared to those born pre-pandemic, according to a study at Brown University that is awaiting peer-review and publication.
A team of researchers at Columbia University report pandemic babies scored lower on social and motor screening tests at 6 months.
And, in separate studies, Canadian researchers report increased risk of developmental delays among 1-year-olds born between April and November 2020 and a link between higher levels of distress experienced by pregnant women during the pandemic and changes in their babies’ brains. (The studies are also awaiting peer review.)
Many families have endured terrible disruption and loss during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s going to take a long time to assess the full impact, said James Griffin, chief of the child development and behavior branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland.
Griffin encourages parents and caregivers to interact and get out with their young children as much as possible, rather than worrying too much. And experts urge families not to panic or assume their children will have a problem.
“Until we see strong evidence of replication, or we see evidence that what these researchers are finding are predictive of future health and development, we cannot conclude that children born today are at a disadvantage,” said Moriah Thomason, Barakett associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. She also urges researchers to consider possible positive effects, including for example, whether the pandemic has made kids more resilient.
Lauren Shuffrey, a developmental neuroscientist, co-author of the Columbia article and new mother, said she finds it hard to balance giving her child new experiences and protecting her family from the virus. She hasn’t taken her daughter, Maisie, born in March 2020, to the grocery store, but did sign her up for music and soccer classes to socialize with other kids. “I sort of felt like it was making up for lost time,” said Shuffrey, who created a weekly schedule for Maisie. “Instead of having a playdate once a week, I was almost doing exposure therapy where every day there was another activity.”
Since the Columbia study did not find any neurodevelopmental differences between babies with and without in- utero SARS-CoV-2 exposure, the researchers suggest pandemic-related stress is potentially to blame. The original analysis depended on parental reports, but Shuffrey said she’s interested in objective assessments and monitoring children over time.
“It’s not as though we expect that development of 6 months is predictive of one’s entire future,” she said. “So, there’s definitely room to intervene. Babies’ brains at this age are just so malleable and so shaped by the environment.”
About half of the pregnant women who participated in the University of Calgary study had significantly elevated anxiety during the pandemic and one third experienced depression, a rate that is two to three times higher than usual, said Catherine Lebel, co-author and associate professor of radiology in the university’s developmental neuroimaging lab. (The heightened rates are in line with other research showing an increase in maternal depression and anxiety symptoms.)
Lebel’s team discovered the mothers’ elevated stress was likely impacting the infant brain, particularly in the section involved in emotion regulation, which can be linked to mental health problems later. However, when women with high symptoms of depression and anxiety received strong social support, their babies’ brains appeared more typical.
“The essence of the message is that there’s no point in telling someone to be less stressed,” Lebel said. “Stress is totally normal here. We just need to support people who are going through it. That helps them, and amazingly, it helps their kids.”
Surveys indicate parents experienced increased stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression as they tried to keep families safe and financially afloat during the pandemic. And some research has found pregnant women with symptomatic Covid-19 may experience more adverse outcomes than people infected with Covid-19 who are not pregnant.
Another study, reflecting heightened emotional distress and adverse breastfeeding experiences among women who gave birth during the pandemic, underscores the need for better mental health screening and resources for families, said Clayton Shuman, assistant professor in the University of Michigan school of nursing and co-author of the study. “Mothers who are mentally healthy, physically healthy are going to be better prepared to provide the necessary care for their infant,” he said.
The new studies are similar to previous research that links stress to negative impacts on infant development, said Meghan Schmelzer, a senior policy analyst for infant early childhood mental health at ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “Brains grow the fastest between when you’re in utero and the first few years of life, so it’s something to pay attention to — absolutely,” she said.
But early intervention and cost-effective resources to address children’s mental health during infancy and early childhood and women’s mental health during pregnancy can help redirect the developmental trajectory, Schmelzer said.
Anya Dunham, a Canadian research scientist and mother of three, said her son, Ryan, born in the summer of 2020, is not having the same babyhood his sisters did. They don’t go on trips to the library or see anyone unmasked other than family.
“It’s hard to say what implications not being out in the world might have, but I’m hoping not too much,” said Dunham, author of “Baby Ecology: Using Science and Intuition to the Create the Best Feeding, Sleeping and Play Environment for Your Unique Baby.”
Ryan is a little behind on language acquisition, said Dunham. He just met the minimum benchmark at his 18-month checkup. But, Dunham said, “my gut feeling tells me he will be alright. It just might take a little bit longer.”
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This story about pandemic babies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.