Babies born during COVID pandemic show slower developmental skills, new study finds

Babies born during the early months of the pandemic scored slightly lower on a screening of their developmental skills than those born prior to the pandemic, regardless of whether their mothers had COVID-19 during pregnancy, a new study revealed.

Published Tuesday, the study, in JAMA Pediatrics, followed 255 babies born in March to December 2020 in New York City, which was the US epicenter in the pandemic’s early days.

The infants were screened for social, communication and motor skills at six months of age using a standard questionnaire about their ability to roll from their back to their stomach, how often they babble and other milestones.

In most areas, the babies born during the pandemic displayed lower scores compared to those born earlier.

That held true whether they were born to mothers who had been infected with COVID during pregnancy or not, the researchers found.

The results may not be indicative of long-term lags in development, they added.

The differences were small discrepancies in average scores between babies born before and after the pandemic began, not higher incidences of developmental delays.

And while scores in social skills and fine and gross motor skills were lower among the babies born during the pandemic, scores in communication skills were a bit higher.

‘Surprising’ results

Brown University associate professor of pediatrics research Sean Deoni has conducted research on the cognitive skills of children born during the pandemic but was not involved in the study.

He said he would have expected to see an effect on babies’ communication because adults’ masks hide their mouths when they talk and infants have had limited social interaction due to lockdowns.

“My initial impression would be things like language would be affected and motor wouldn’t be, and we’re seeing the opposite,” Deoni said.

Infants were screened for social, communication and motor skills at six months of age.
Infants were screened for social, communication and motor skills at six months of age. Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

All of the participants were born at the New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital or the New York-Presbyterian Allen Pavilion Hospital, and their scores were compared to those of 62 infants born at the same hospitals before the pandemic began who were also tested at six months old.

The researchers speculated that stress pregnant women experienced due to the pandemic could explain the drop in babies’ motor and social skills.

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