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Cognitive Development of Babies Born During the Pandemic

It’s likely that we won’t know the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic until many years from now, but researchers are doing their best to figure out how it has affected babies and children. Here, we’ll discuss some of the latest research about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected infant cognitive and emotional development.

In a study shared as a preprint, which means it has not yet been peer reviewed, in medRxiv in August 2021, Sean Deoni, who studies early brain development at Brown University, and colleagues examined cognition in children born in 2020 and 2021. [1] They then compared those cognition scores to those of babies born between 2011 and 2019.

Cognition is a broad concept, encompassing learning, remembering, and using or applying the things you’ve learned. To test cognition in babies, the authors of the study used a tool called the Mullen Scales of Early Learning that measures fine and gross motor function, how well baby sees, and receptive and expressive language. They found that babies born during the pandemic were behind babies born before the pandemic at the same age on this verbal, motor, and cognitive assessment. They also showed that male children and children with fewer access to resources due to family socioeconomic status had the greatest delays.

The authors acknowledge that it’s not clear what aspects of the pandemic—for instance, school and daycare closures or parental stress and working from home—could underlie the effects they observed. “Understanding these factors are critical to helping ensure affected children rebound as the pandemic winds down and they re-enter daycares and schools; as well as implementing additional public health and educational policies that address the most affected of children, particularly those in lower income families,” they write.

In another study published in July 2021 in Development and Psychopathy, Livio Provenzi, a psychologist and researcher at IRCCS Mondino Foundation in Italy, and colleagues explored the influence of maternal stress on infants’ ability to self-regulate at three months old. [2] As expected, infants are not great at self-regulating, but the researchers found that babies born to mothers who reported high pandemic-related anxiety and stress, as well as lack of social support, were even less able to cope with challenges. The authors write that systemic change that would focus on supporting new parents, especially during the pandemic, will be essential moving forward.

So what does all this mean if you’ve had a baby in the past few years? First, don’t panic. Having an engaged, responsive caregiver is a benefit to babies, no matter what the state of the COVID-19 pandemic is. To be an engaged, responsive caregiver, converse with your baby. I prefer to speak in real sentences and not use baby talk, but it really is up to you. As long as you’re being genuine and attempting to connect, baby will receive the benefits. And you don’t have to talk to your baby just to talk. Instead, think of them as an adult with whom you share your life and the conversation will likely flow more naturally and be more fun for both of you.

Another way to be an engaged caregiver is to take care of yourself first. You’ve probably heard the analogy about putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you help the people near you, right? Well, it’s the same for parenting. If you’re so depleted that anxiety and worry are creeping in, take stock of what you need to feel more like yourself. Maybe you need an afternoon off and could trade with another parent so you each get a break. Maybe it would feel good to pop baby in a stroller and then crank up your music or favorite podcast while you powerwalk your neighborhood. No matter what you decide, try to stick to it, so that you have some bandwidth left to care for your child.

References

  1. Deoni, Sean et al., “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Child Cognitive Development: Initial Findings in a Longitudinal Observational Study of Child Health.” medRxiv : the preprint server for health sciences.
  2. Provenzi, Livio et al., “Prenatal maternal stress during the COVID-19 pandemic and infant regulatory capacity at 3 months: A longitudinal study.” Development and Psychopathology.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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