At the start of the pandemic, when much of the world was in lockdown, many parents and other caregivers expressed fears about how a historic period of prolonged isolation might affect their children.
Now, a study from Ireland has shed some light on this question. His findings suggest that babies born during Ireland’s first covid-19 lockdown were likely to be slower to develop certain social communication skills than their pre-pandemic peers. They were less likely to be able to say goodbye, point to things and know a “definite and meaningful word” by the time they reached 1 year of age. In contrast, they were more likely to be able to crawl.
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Experts say the early years of children’s lives are the most formative – their brains absorb every interaction and experience, positive and negative, to build the neural connections that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
For the “confined babies” cohort, the “first year of life was very different from pre-pandemic babies,” said Susan Byrne, a pediatric neurologist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and lead author of the study, at the Washington. Job.
But she and the other study authors have a message for parents: don’t get too worried. “Babies are resilient and curious by nature,” they note, and are likely to bounce back with the right support.
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Although the pandemic is not over and experts say it could be years before we have a fuller picture of its effects on children, parents around the world have already started to report differences in their confined babies.
When Chi Lam, 33, had her first child, Adriana, in April 2020, England was in lockdown. Most people were not allowed to leave their homes without a “reasonable excuse”. His parents and in-laws, who were in Hong Kong, were also unable to visit him, as Hong Kong had closed its border.
As a result, for the first few months of Adriana’s life, it was “just the three of us,” Lam told the Post. There were no play dates or visits from family and friends, and Adriana was not regularly exposed to children her own age until she was 1 year old.
Lam believes the prolonged isolation has had some impact on her daughter Adriana. During her two-year checkup, doctors told Lam that Adriana had “poor” gross motor skills – actions like jumping and walking that engage the whole body. “I guess it’s because we didn’t let her play in the park until she was 1 because we thought it wasn’t safe” because of the pandemic, Lam said. Adriana was also easily startled by loud noises, such as motorcycle exhausts.
It’s hard, Lam says, to disentangle how much of that is inherent in who Adriana is and how much is tied to the unusual circumstances of her first year of life. But his observations echo the findings of studies that are beginning to suggest that lockdowns and the pandemic have indeed affected children – although to what extent and through what mechanisms remains a wide open question.
The Irish study, published this month in the British Medical Journal, asked parents of 309 babies born between March and May 2020 to report on their child’s ability to reach 10 developmental milestones by age 1 an – including the ability to crawl, stack bricks and point at objects. The researchers compared these parents’ responses to data collected on more than 1,600 babies in a large-scale study that followed babies born in Ireland between 2008 and 2011 and assessed their development over time.
There were some small but significant differences between the two groups. Fewer babies in the study could say goodbye – 87.7% vs. 94.4%, point to objects around them – 83.8% vs. 92.8%, or say at least one “definite word” and significant” – 76.6% versus 89.3% – at their 12-month assessment, according to their parents. However, they were more likely than their pre-pandemic peers to be able to crawl by age 1. In the other six categories, the researchers found no significant differences.
Studies that rely on observations can identify differences but do not shed light on the reason for the difference. However, the authors of the Irish study have a few theories.
They suggest babies in the lockdown cohort may have had fewer visitors, and therefore fewer opportunities to learn how to say goodbye. With limited movement outside the home, babies may have seen fewer objects they would like to point to. And they may have “heard a smaller language repertoire and seen fewer unmasked faces speaking to them”, due to the lockdown measures.
Conversely, confined babies may have learned to crawl faster because they spent more time at home playing on the floor, “rather than outside in cars and strollers”.
“The jury is still very far out on the effects of this pandemic on this generation,” Dani Dumitriu, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University who was not involved in the Irish study, told The Post.
Dumitriu, who co-authored a separate study of babies born in 2020, called the results reassuring. “They don’t find major developmental delays, just like we didn’t.”
The study, which was peer-reviewed, has some limitations. It relies on parents’ observations of their own children, which may be erroneous or incomplete. There were demographic differences between the pre- and post-pandemic baby population, and in each case parents were asked to rate their children’s development “in a slightly different way”.
According to the authors and other experts, what’s needed is a large-scale study that follows babies over time and measures their development in a standardized way – what’s called a longitudinal cohort study. The authors of this study assessed the cohort of confined babies at age 2 with a standardized set of developmental questionnaires and hope to publish their results, which are under review, in a follow-up article.
In the meantime, the study authors say most babies can overcome any delay caused by the pandemic with the right support. Researchers who studied this cohort of babies have called on governments to provide more resources to the families of confined babies – especially those most at risk – and to follow these babies over time to ensure there are no has no long term delays. “If we notice a delay, we can intervene quickly and get that child back on the correct trajectory,” says Dumitriu.
Ultimately, Byrne hopes that “with the reopening…babies will really thrive.”
“There’s such a margin of plasticity in the brains of babies and children,” she told the Post.
Lam is also optimistic that Adriana will catch up as she gets older. “People around me tell me that once they go back to school, they’ll be fine,” she told the Post. “I believe so too.”
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