The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many people in a variety of ways, even babies. For babies born during the Covid19 pandemic, a JAMA study suggests, the log-term health problems has the potential to be lifelong.
The first three years of life are crucial for brain development in humans. But it’s not just the health of babies that it affected, but the interactions between babies, parents and other would be caregivers. Babies need to be touched, spoken to, swaddled, smiled at, played with, stimulated and loved. As they respond to those interactions, neural connections are constructed in the brain. Without those interactions, an infant's brain doesn’t develop and grow as it should.
A stressed out or depressed parent or caregiver may find it hard to find the time and energy required to give the child's brain the love, stimulation and attention it needs to develop. There are many studies showing that poverty, maternal depression and other factors can change the development of a child's brain forever.
As part of an ongoing study of babies and their mothers, researchers from Columbia University studied the development of three groups of 6-month-old infants. Two of the groups were born during the COVID-19 pandemic; the mothers of one group had COVID-19, while the mothers of the other did not. The third group was a historical cohort (a group of babies who were born before the pandemic).
Mothers participating in the study used an Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ-3) to record their babies’ development and evolution. The researchers noted no difference in the development of the two groups of babies born during the pandemic, suggesting that prenatal exposure to COVID-19 doesn’t affect development, which is good news. But babies born during the pandemic scored lower in gross motor, fine motor, and social-emotional development than the babies born before the pandemic. Examples of developmental tasks for babies in this age group are rolling from back to tummy (gross motor), reaching for or grasping a toy with both hands (fine motor), and acting differently to strangers than to parents or familiar people (social-emotional development).
Infant Development during COVID
It’s just one study, and we need to do more research to better understand this, but the findings are not really surprising given what we know about infant development. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of stress — emotional, financial, and otherwise — for so many families. It has also markedly affected the number and kind of interactions we have with other people. Babies are on average interacting with fewer people (and seeing fewer faces because of masking) than they did before the pandemic.
Even though we need to do more research, this study should serve as a warning for us as a society. The children of this pandemic will carry scars forever if we don’t intervene now. We’ve already seen the emotional and educational effects on children, and we need to be aware of the developmental effects on babies too. The stakes are too high to ignore the research.
What Can be Done?
We need to find ways to financially and emotionally support families with young children. We need to be diligent, energetic and creative, and work every angle available. And even if our government can't help out enough and play a role, our communities and individuals must take up the slack.
And parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers need to know about this research — and ask for help. It’s understandable and natural for parents to think that babies are too small and unaware to be affected by the pandemic. But they are affected, in ways that could be long-lasting. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to help yourself, your family, and your baby’s future.