How did the pandemic effect babies born since it started?
Child development studies usually take a long time to collect data, which means that researchers are just beginning to see trends on how the pandemic has affected babies and children. The true effects won’t be known for years, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying, and some of the studies are building on old research with surprising results.
Since viral infections in pregnant women can correlate with neurodevelopmental delays in babies, researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City decided to study the effects of COVID-19 on a group of 255 infants born between March and December of 2020.
The results of the COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcome (COMBO) Initiative surprised the researchers. Using the Ages & Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), they found that at six months of age there was not any associated difference between the 114 babies who were exposed to COVID and the 144 who were not. However, when they compared all 255 babies born during the pandemic with a cohort of 62 infants born before the pandemic began, the pandemic babies scored lower on three areas: gross motor skills, fine motor skills and personal social skills.
Researchers hypothesized that maternal stress and anxiety was the culprit, since mothers in the study also reported life stressor like loneliness, job loss, food insecurity and loss of housing. They also reported significant increases in anxiety and depression.
Locally, Pediatrician Lori Zito, MD at Bass River Pediatric Associates has not seen a dramatic increase in developmental delays among babies in her practice who were born since the pandemic started. She administers the ASQ at every pediatric visit from four months on.
Dr. Zito said that maternal depression and life stressors can have a negative effect on child development.
“If the mother is depressed because of COVID, that definitely would affect their babies,” she said. “We know that’s true. That’s why we do post-partum depression screenings at a couple of visits to see if we can pick up on maternal depression as soon as possible so we can refer the mother back to her obstetrician or primary care doctor for treatment.”
Dr. Zito wasn’t overly concerned about the new study because it was a small study and 6 months of age is pretty early to sound the alarm. She points out that babies don’t do a lot at 6 months. They babble, coo, smile, roll, put their hands in their mouths, and can sit without support for a couple of seconds before tipping over.
One possible reason for the delay in motor skills could be that the mothers and fathers held their babies more for their own comfort from stress and loneliness, Dr. Zito said. She also observed that a lot of new mothers were home with their babies because daycare centers were closed, and people were laid off from jobs. That inadvertently gave them more time to spend with their babies, which might have led them to hold them more, which could slow their gross motor development.
What Can You Do?
Her solution to any possible motor skills delays at that age is simple.
“Put the baby down on the floor on a mat on their belly,” she said. “They’re not supposed to sleep on their belly. They’re supposed to sleep on their backs but during the day they should play on their bellies so that they can build up the muscle strength to hold their head up, roll over and eventually crawl.”
She advises parents to sit on the floor with their babies and put age-appropriate toys just out of their reach to encourage the baby to roll over. Rolling is the first mode of moving for most babies and a lot of babies will roll to get a toy at six or seven months.
“If people are holding their babies too much, then they can’t learn those skills,” Dr. Zito said.
The personal-social skills delays study findings are more of a puzzle to her. Perhaps it was caused because the mothers and fathers suffered from depression and weren’t interacting with their babies as much. Plus, a lot of new parents didn’t have the support of grandparents or friends because of quarantines.
But again, the answer to bring them up to speed is fairly simple. Dr. Zito recommends that parents talk to their babies, sing to them and play with them - do patty-cake and blow raspberries on their bellies – just all of the things that have always worked for babies. They still do.
She’s hopeful that the babies will be okay and is actually more worried about the older kids in her practice.
“For the adolescents, there definitely has been an increase in anxiety and depression,” she said. “There are a lot of studies about adverse childhood events, including big stresses like food insecurity, housing insecurity, physical abuse, loss of a parent – those big stressors affect children. It affects not only their mental health but their physical health too. Kids can have a higher incidence of asthma. They can have short stature and problems with cholesterol as they become adults if they have these adverse childhood events. And this is a big childhood event for them.”
Her advice to parents of older kids is to just keep the channels of communication open. Talk to them about their days, their fears, their reactions to what they are experiencing. Just taking the time to make sure your children feel loved is one of the most important things you can do. Routines are good, so nurture them, read to them, feed them well and kiss them good-night after a calming bath.
Dr. Zito also sees one upside with older kids. Without outside attractions and competing priorities, families are spending more time together, playing board games and watching movies together on the weekends.
“The pandemic has cut down on a lot of the things that were causing kids too much stress like being way overscheduled,” she said. “So maybe there have been some positives. Things are going back to normal to some extent, but kids still aren’t as overscheduled as they used to be and I think that may be a good thing to come out of this.”