COVID babies, born just before or during the COVID 19 lockdowns, have no frame of reference on normalcy. These children were born into a bubble limited to household contacts as a public health measure with extremely limited contact with extended family, health care personnel and the community.
Access to reliable, high-quality childcare — often cited in the promotion of child cognitive and social development, particularly in socio-economically challenged families — was non-existent. The associated benefit to parents, particularly women, of accessing education, training and employment opportunities vanished. Drop-in centres closed, playgrounds were taped off, and “virtual” took preference over “in-person” health care visits, for fear of contracting COVID 19 in the waiting room.
In January 2022, the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics reported that babies at six months, born during COVID 19, scored lower on gross motor, fine motor, and personal-social subdomains, compared to a pre-pandemic cohort. Interestingly, the scores of infants that were born to mothers who had COVID 19 during pregnancy were similar to those of infants whose mothers did not contract COVID 19 during pregnancy. At this early stage, just being born into the pandemic affected the development of young babies.
Another study compared the development of infants and toddlers during a 6-month period in 2020 with the time spent in early childhood education (ECE) and socioeconomic status. It revealed receptive vocabulary growth was greater in children who continued to attend ECE during the period, with benefits more pronounced in children with socioeconomic disadvantages.
Socioeconomic disadvantages, however, become more pronounced during a pandemic. Lower income families may not have work-from-home options, may be forced to work in high-risk settings, or suffer job losses. With isolation bubbles trumping traditional community supports, new parents were isolated and leery about exposures to COVID 19 during in-home well-baby visits or in-office medical appointments.
UN Women noted increases in calls to domestic violence helplines since the outbreak of COVID-19, complicated by a lack of knowledge of how to access resources during the pandemic, as well as reallocation of domestic violence resources to address the pandemic. The Mayo Clinic noted a major increase in the number of U.S. adults reporting symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia during the pandemic, with some increasing their use of alcohol or drugs.
It is not surprising that early child development could suffer under these extreme conditions of isolation. Prior to the pandemic, in 2006, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reported that parent and family characteristics were more strongly related to child development than the form of childcare received. The Canadian Pediatric Society in association with the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported in 2021 on COVID 19 and Early Childhood Mental Health, identifying parental stress as a major consideration on the impact of COVID 19 on children.
Factors beneficial to infant development include a higher level of parental education, higher incomes, emotionally supportive and cognitively enriched home environments and less maternal psychological distress.
High-quality childcare remains the centrepiece of childhood development, with a goal to reduce the effects that socio-economic disadvantages can have on a child. During lockdowns, COVID-19 closed childcare centres, leaving families struggling to manage their housing, finances and childcare needs. Women, often the most responsible for childcare, were affected disproportionately.
Supporting the family unit is essential to ensure that COVID babies are supported during the pandemic and, as they emerge from the pandemic, with a reliable, adequate source of family income, stable housing, and safe and accessible parental supports. Measures that reduce parental stress will help address the negative impacts of the pandemic on families and their infants. [*]
Vinay Jindal is a family physician in Scarborough, Ontario.