Study Shows Babies Born During Pandemic Have Slight Developmental Delays—Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics appears to show that babies born during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic may lag behind slightly in certain developmental areas.

You may have seen the headlines this week that point to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics that appears to show that babies born between March and December 2020 are developing slower than babies born before the pandemic. But before you get a knot in your stomach, because the world is already pretty stressful right now, this study is not an exhaustive one. At best, it is a seed of thought for further studies.

But let's dig into it.

Researchers wanted to know if maternal a COVID-19 infection during pregnancy could be associated with infant neurobehavioral development by the age of 6 months. What they found was astonishing; it turns out that babies born during the early months of the pandemic showed signs of slowed developmental growth whether or not they were exposed to COVID-19.

An image of a mother holding her baby.
Getty Images.

Researchers followed 255 babies from New York City, which was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Each of the 255 babies had been born between March and December of 2020, meaning they could have had exposure to COVID-19 while in the womb. These infants were screened for routine milestones by six months, such as social skills, communication skills, and motor skills. Specifically, parents were asked if their babies could roll from their backs to their bellies and how often their babies would babble.

The study's findings show that pandemic babies scored slightly lower than babies born pre-pandemic. But while this study may sound alarming, it is important to highlight that this study in no way demonstrates that these slightly lower scores are long-term.

"It's a very small sample, taken from a very specific health system in New York City, taken during a very limited time period," Mollie Wood, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina School of Global Public Health explained to NBC News. "Not that we can't learn from things that way, but it does speak to a very small slice of the pandemic among pregnant people."

While the study shouldn't cause alarm, it might give some parents some understanding about why their infants may be a bit slower to reach certain milestones than others.

"Children are resilient. We are talking about very small changes on a couple of measures," Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, a clinical psychologist in Maryland, and founder of Dr Psych Mom, says. "It is common sense that with less stimulation, babies will develop slower. The best approach, in my opinion, would be to double down on the amount of positive, enriching, active things you do with your baby."

Since this cohort of infants was born during round after round of lockdowns in New York City, it would make sense that their ability to experience the world and work on specific developmental milestones would have been temporarily hampered. However, that doesn't mean that babies who lag slightly in some areas of fine and gross motor skills or social skills can't catch up quickly.

One cool finding, though, was that communication skills were higher in these babies. Perhaps listening to parents work from home all day lended itself to earlier language.

"If you have been too anxious to go outside much, this can give you increased motivation to tackle that fear and expose your baby to many new and stimulating activities, including daily outdoor time," says Dr. Whiten.

For parents who are concerned that their infants need a little bit of help mastering skills, here are some ideas that are both fun and great ways to bond with your baby:

  • Read aloud to your baby every day. Have fun with it by trying out funny voices, pointing to words and pictures, and asking your baby questions—yes, even if they can't talk back yet.
  • Take every opportunity you can to talk with your baby. Tell them stories, ask them questions, giggle together, make up jokes, and more. After all, it takes two to communicate.
  • Pack up your baby and head outside to explore the world. Point out as many sensations as you can, like the sound of cars whizzing by or birds chirping. Give your baby opportunities to meet others and learn how to socialize by waving hello and goodbye, smile, and practicing some of these communication skills.
  • Play! There are whole universes worth of learning that come from play. Create sensory bins to help your little one work on fine and gross motor skills. Dance and move together. Play music. Make art. The opportunities for incorporating play into your daily routine are endless.

If you are concerned that your baby is lagging in any developmental areas, always feel empowered to call your pediatrician to ask for your child to be screened.

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