child face mask

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LONDON — COVID lockdowns and face masks policies have contributed to babies born during the pandemic having worse communicating skills than other infants, a new study reveals.

Enforced isolation during the pandemic meant children met fewer milestones in their first year of life, according to the study by a team at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. During their interactions, young babies fixate on an adult’s eyes, while older children focus on the mouth.

However, COVID-mandated lockdowns and mask-wearing limited time spent outside the home and children’s access to visual and facial cues. Researchers studied 309 12-month-old pandemic babies born during the first three months of the outbreak, between March and May 2020. Results revealed many of those children reached fewer social communication milestones than other kids.

The team looked at 10 developmental outcomes: crawling, side stepping along furniture, standing alone, picking up tiny objects with their thumb and index finger, stacking bricks, finger feeding, knowing their own name, expressing one definite and meaningful word, pointing at objects, and waving “bye-bye.”

Parents assessed their own kids, and researchers compared the results with 1,629 other babies. More pandemic babies were able to crawl (97.5% vs. 91%) but fewer expressed one definite and meaningful word (77% vs. 89%). Similarly, just 84 percent of pandemic babies were able to point compared to 93 percent of babies born in “normal times.” Only 88 percent were able to wave bye-bye versus 94.5 percent of the baseline group.

What’s causing these milestones delays?

Scientists say the crawling uptick was likely due to babies spending more time at home on their own floor rather than in cars or carriages. The impact on communication was likely due to lockdown possibly reducing the language repertoire infants heard and reducing the sight of faces speaking to them without a mask on.

These babies also had fewer opportunities to encounter new interesting items that they could point at, and fewer social contacts where they had the opportunity to learn to wave bye-bye.

However, since the study was observational, the scientists publishing this study in Archives of Disease in Childhood could not draw any firm conclusions. Despite that, the researchers believe it is likely the babies will improve as they grow.

“While neurodevelopment is part genetically mediated, parental education, and social exposure, have a significant role to play. Teasing out the direct effect of early enrichment is extremely difficult,” researchers say in a media release.

“Pandemic-associated social isolation appears to have impacted on social communication skills in babies born during the pandemic compared with a historical cohort,” the team continues. “Babies are resilient and inquisitive by nature, and it is very likely that with societal re-emergence and increase in social circles that their social communication skills will improve. However, this cohort and others will need to be followed up to school age to ensure that this is the case.”

The pandemic babies were all a part of the CORAL study, otherwise known as the Impact of Coronavirus Pandemic on Allergic and Autoimmune Dysregulation in Infants Born During Lockdown. The other infants were a part of the BASELINE study – Babies After SCOPE: Evaluating the Longitudinal Impact using Neurological and Nutritional Impact – which included babies born in Ireland between 2008 and 2011.

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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