Babies that were born in the first year of the pandemic are suffering stunted development, according to a new study.
These babies are developing social and motor skills at a slower rate than children born before the pandemic and, perhaps most worryingly of all, this effect appears to be independent of whether or not the mothers had COVID-19 during pregnancy.
The pandemic: stunting children’s early development
The findings come from a review of 255 babies born in the New York area between March and December 2020.
“The developmental trajectory of an infant begins before birth,” says says lead investigator Dr. Dani Dumitriu in a university release, from Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Dumitriu is also a pediatrician atthe Well Baby Nursery at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
“With potentially millions of infants who may have been exposed to COVID in utero, and even more mothers just living through the stress of the pandemic, there is a critical need to understand the neurodevelopmental effects of the pandemic on future generations.”
The research team analyzed questionnaires given to parents to evaluate aspects of their child’s development. Around half of the mothers in the study reported having COVID at some point during their pregnancies, with most being either asymptomatic or only experiencing mild symptoms.
Although the results show no differences in the scores between infants whose mothers had COVID and those whose mothers did not, the average scores in social and gross and fine motor skills among both classes of pandemic-era babies were lower than 62 pre-pandemic infants born at the same hospitals.
“These were not large differences, meaning we did not see a higher rate of actual developmental delays in our sample of a few hundred babies, just small shifts in average scores between the groups,” Dumitriu explains.
“But these small shifts warrant careful attention because at the population level, they can have a significant public health impact. We know this from other pandemics and natural disasters.”
The researchers believe that pandemic-related anxiety may be the trigger for these developmental differences. It should be noted that the study did not measure levels of maternal stress during pregnancy, though.
Previous research has found that maternal stress during the very early stages of pregnancy has a significant impact on developmental functioning in newborns, and Dr. Dumitriu’s researchers noted a similar trend: infants whose mothers were in the first trimester at the height of the pandemic had the lowest neurodevelopment scores.
Other factors that may explain the findings include a reduction in play dates with other children and more stressful interactions with caregivers.
The researchers plan to follow the infants in long-term studies.
Despite the shocking findings, the study’s authors want to assure parents that the negative effects of the pandemic can be mitigated.
“We want parents to know that the findings in our small study do not necessarily mean that this generation will be impaired later in life,” Dumitriu says.
“This is still a very early developmental stage with lots of opportunities to intervene and get these babies onto the right developmental trajectory.”
Let’s just hope Dr. Dumitriu is right.
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