Babies Born During Pandemic Have Lower Developmental Scores: Study

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
January 6, 2022Updated: January 6, 2022

Babies who were born during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had lower developmental scores compared to pre-pandemic babies, a study suggests.

According to research published on Jan. 4 in JAMA Pediatrics, COVID-19 infection during pregnancy doesn’t appear to affect an infant’s brain function, but the pandemic itself may be having an effect.

A group of researchers in New York studied 255 infants born between March and December 2020, including 114 whose mothers had COVID-19 during pregnancy. It found that some of those infants born during the pandemic have experienced slight developmental delays.

Overall, compared with 62 infants born before the pandemic, the babies born during the health crisis displayed slightly lower scores on tasks involving large muscles, tasks requiring small muscle movements, and personal interactions.

“Both exposed and unexposed infants born during that period had significantly lower scores on gross motor, fine motor, and personal-social subdomains compared with a historical cohort of infants born before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study reads.

Dr. Dani Dumitriu of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute stated that the findings suggest that stress felt by pregnant mothers during the pandemic may have had an effect on infant development.

“The developmental trajectory of an infant begins before birth. 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.”

The findings don’t necessarily mean that these infants will suffer long-term consequences, Dumitriu said. Assessments at six months are poor predictors of long-term outcomes.

Infants whose mothers were in their first trimester at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic displayed the lowest neurodevelopment scores.

Dumitriu also suggested that fewer social interactions such as playdates during the pandemic may have played a role.

“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.”

If additional research confirms that birth during the pandemic negatively affects neurodevelopment, “because this is such an early time point, there are lots of opportunities to intervene and get these babies onto the right developmental trajectory,” she said.

“These early findings support the need for long-term monitoring of children born during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study reads.

Reuters contributed to this report.