Will the Pandemic Leave a Lasting Mark on Baby Brains?

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03/11/2022

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Donise Keller, a child care provider in Antioch, takes care of a little boy coping with some developmental delays. The 3½-year-old doesn’t talk very much, and he doesn’t enjoy interacting with other children. She fears he may be one of many youngsters whose growth has been stymied by the pandemic, which has dominated his short life.

“These children have been isolated too much,” said Keller, who has worked in the child care sector for 20 years. “Being around other children is what motivates them to grow and develop. If you are home all day with family, especially as an only child, there are no other children to inspire you and model behavior for you.”

Emerging research suggests that some babies and toddlers might be developing differently than they did before the coronavirus upended society. While they may not have been exposed to the virus, experts say, their formative years have been shaped by the impact of stress, trauma, and social isolation. That explains why about 3 out of 4 California parents with children age 5 and under fear their kids’ development will suffer because of the pandemic, one survey found, and some advocates worry the effects may be long-lasting if steps are not taken to remedy the situation.

“This is a big concern, and it’s not a surprise. When we think of adverse childhood experiences, probably every child that has experienced the pandemic has had an adverse childhood experience,” said Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers. “Science has shown that trauma interrupts normal brain development in young children, which is why children with a high number of these experiences are likely to have developmental delays.”

A cluster of recent studies examines this unexpected legacy of the pandemic. A Columbia University study found increased developmental delays. Another study, at Brown University, found significantly lower cognitive scores, or IQs, among this cohort. Other research has exposed a link between heightened maternal stress during pregnancy and changes in their infant’s developing brain.

To be sure, the pandemic has touched every child differently. Some children are experiencing developmental delays while others may have thrived. But overall the data suggests that the consequences of the pandemic include everything from growing poverty and declining mental health to learning loss.

These issues affect all children, of course, but infants and toddlers may be the most vulnerable because they have never known life without Covid. The first three years of life are often described as the brain’s window of opportunity, experts say, a time of great promise but also great risk. The most critical growth happens at the beginning, with the size of the brain doubling in the first year.

“This busy period for the brain is disproportionately important,” said Rahil Briggs, national director of HealthySteps, a pediatric care program. “While it may be the foundation for resilience, as new neural pathways are created and others pruned, it is also an incredibly vulnerable time, leaving children susceptible to disruptions in development.”

One of the biggest problems during the pandemic is that babies may not have gotten enough of the “serve and return” interactions that help build the architecture of the brain, experts say. When babies cry or babble and a caregiver responds, neural connections are reinforced in the child’s brain. This early speech exposure shapes brain connectivity for later language learning.

“Many of us know from experience that babies learn how to speak by watching our mouths and lips,” Moore said. “A loss of connection and interaction comes from quarantine and mask-wearing.”

A stable and calm environment, hard to come by during the pandemic, helps foster executive function skills, such as focus and planning, and social-emotional health, experts say. Stressed-out caregivers may not have been as focused on the needs of children as they should have been. Poverty is another key issue. One study found that babies from low-income families experienced the largest drop in cognitive function.

“Babies form secure attachments with their caregivers that allow them to feel safe enough to explore and interact, which is how they develop, both physically and mentally,” Moore said. “When your child care shuts down or your caregiver is out sick or your parent has to quarantine, this disrupts your security and thereby slows your development.”

Infants are far from immune to the emotions of their caregivers. In fact, they are veritable radar dishes, experts say, picking up on subtle shifts in body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. That’s a double-edged sword.

“We know from research that children whose parents are depressed and unable to respond to their social bids, often become highly distressed,” said Heidi M. Feldman, professor of pediatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine. “In this pandemic, I think that children are experiencing a variant of this stressful situation.”

However, while any diminished brain growth is concerning, developmental hurdles can be overcome, experts say, if the level of engagement and stimulation increases.

“We do not necessarily expect developmental differences at 6 months of age will be predictive of one’s future,” said Lauren Shuffrey, a developmental neuroscientist and co-author of the Columbia study. “Infant development is shaped by many contextual factors.”

That’s why many experts advise against drawing dire conclusions about lifelong consequences based on these new studies. Shuffrey, who has a 2-year-old of her own, suggests taking a longer view on parenting during a pandemic.

“Our findings do not necessarily indicate that this generation will be impaired later in life,” Shuffrey said. “It will be important to continue to monitor the generation of children born during the pandemic to provide support as needed. Parents should always discuss any concerns about their child’s development with their pediatrician.”

One of the reasons children are so resilient, experts say, is that they are hardwired to blossom when nurtured.

“Babies bounce back. If addressed soon with early intervention and mental health services, developmental delays can be resolved, even the effects of trauma can be healed,” Moore said. “California has just made historic investments in child care, preschool, mental health, and special education. We need to make sure it gets to the children who need it the most: the babies.”

Keller, for one, has no doubts that the little boy she cares for can overcome his speech delay and social issues with time and therapy.

“These children might need different benchmarks, and they might need more resources to help them catch up, but I absolutely believe they can do it,” she said. “We just need to take some extra steps and find them the help they need.”

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