Pandemic is stunting babies’ development due to stress on mothers

Average scores in social and motor skills of pandemic babies were lower than pre-Covid infants
Average scores in social and motor skills of pandemic babies were lower than pre-Covid infants

Babies born during the pandemic have experienced delayed development and may have fallen behind because of mothers' stress, a new study has suggested.

Researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, studied babies born to mothers who had Covid-19 during pregnancy, versus those who did not, and compared the findings to historical births.

Nearly half of the mothers in the study had Covid at some point in pregnancy - mostly mild or asymptomatic symptoms.

The team analysed questionnaires given to parents to evaluate aspects of infant development at six months, known as the Ages and Stages Questionnaire.

The survey measured the babies’ communication skills, motor skills of both large and small muscles, problem-solving abilities and personal social skills.

The results were based on 255 babies born in New York between March and December 2020.

No differences were found in scores between infants exposed to the virus in the womb and those whose mothers did not contract it.

But average scores in social and motor skills were lower than 62 pre-pandemic infants born at the same hospitals.

This applied to those whose mothers either contracted the virus or did not.

Mothers face ‘huge amount of stress’

Maternal stress caused by lockdowns, work and health worries is likely to be affecting newborns' development, the scientist said.

Dr Dani Dumitriu, the lead investigator, said: "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.

"We were surprised to find absolutely no signal suggesting that exposure to Covid in the womb 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 the huge amount of stress felt by pregnant mothers during these unprecedented times may have played a role."

Changes in children’s developmental scores

To assess babies' communication skills at six months, mothers were asked questions on whether their child makes sounds or uses gestures to get attention, as well as whether they make sounds and look at their parents while playing.

To measure motor skills, parents were asked whether their babies get into a crawling position by getting up on their hands and knees. They were also asked whether they pick up a small toy and hold it in the centre of their hands, with their fingers around it.

Dr Dumitriu said the “small shifts” in development scores between pre-pandemic and pandemic babies “warrant careful attention”.

"The developmental trajectory of an infant begins before birth,” Dr Dumitriu said.

"With potentially millions of infants who may have been exposed to Covid in the womb, 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."

Anxiety caused by the pandemic and experienced by the mothers could explain the drop in motor and social skills, said Dr Dumitriu.

However, the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, did not measure levels of maternal stress during pregnancy.

Previous research shows maternal stress in the earliest stages of pregnancy has a bigger effect on socio-emotional functioning in infants.

Dr Dumitriu and colleagues identified a similar trend. Infants whose mothers were in the first trimester at the height of the pandemic had the lowest neuro-development 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, she added.

The researchers will continue to follow the infants in long-term studies.