NEW YORK — Babies born during the first year of the pandemic are displaying less social and motor skills than other children born prior to the health crisis. Concerningly, researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center say they’re noticing this in young children regardless of whether their mothers had COVID-19 or not.
At six months of age, the infants scored lower on social and motor development tests in comparison to babies born before the start of the global pandemic in March 2020. Study authors suspect that maternal stress due to lockdowns and worrying over work and health issues may be responsible for this change.
“Infants born to mothers who have viral infections during pregnancy have a higher risk of neurodevelopmental deficits, so we thought we would find some changes in the neurodevelopment of babies whose mothers had COVID during pregnancy,” says lead investigator Dr. Dani Dumitriu in a university release.
“We were surprised to find absolutely no signal suggesting that exposure to COVID while in utero was linked to neurodevelopmental deficits. Rather, being in the womb of a mother experiencing the pandemic was associated with slightly lower scores in areas such as motor and social skills, though not in others, such as communication or problem-solving skills. The results suggest that the huge amount of stress felt by pregnant mothers during these unprecedented times may have played a role.”
Small changes could lead to major health impacts later
The findings come from a review of 255 babies born in the New York area between March and December 2020.
“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 continues. “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.”
Viral illnesses during pregnancy can also increase the risk of neurodevelopmental delays in children. They can trigger the mother’s immune system, which in turn affects fetal brain development.
“The developmental trajectory of an infant begins before birth,” says Dumitriu, who is also a pediatrician in the 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.”
No difference between mothers with and without COVID
The team analyzed questionnaires given to each parent to evaluate aspects of their infant’s development. Nearly half of the mothers in the study had COVID at some point during their pregnancies, with most being asymptomatic or only experiencing mild symptoms.
Results show no differences in the scores between infants whose mothers had COVID and those with healthy mothers throughout their pregnancies. However, the average scores in social and gross and fine motor skills among pandemic-era babies were lower than 62 pre-pandemic infants born at the same hospitals. The findings apply to both infants of mothers with and without COVID-19.
“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.”
Researchers add that pandemic-related anxiety may be the trigger for these developmental differences. However, the study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics did not measure levels of maternal stress during pregnancy.
Stress is a major threat during pregnancy
Previous research has found that maternal stress in the earliest stages of pregnancy has a significant impact on socio-emotional functioning in newborns. Dr. Dumitriu’s team identified a similar trend. Infants whose mothers were in the first trimester at the height of the pandemic had the lowest neurodevelopment scores.
Other factors, including fewer play dates and altered interactions with stressed caregivers, may help explain why babies born during the pandemic have weaker social and motor skills. The researchers plan to follow the infants in long-term studies. Their group was among the first to discover pregnant mothers cannot pass COVID to an unborn child.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.