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Will the pandemic have a lasting effect on babies' brains? | My Baby My Star

A mother smiles at her child during a nurse’s visit to her home.

Donise Keller, a child care worker in Antioch, cares for a young boy who is coping with some developmental delays. The 3½-year-old doesn’t talk much and doesn’t enjoy interacting with other children. She worries he may be one of many youngsters whose growth has been stunted by the pandemic that has dominated his short life.

“These kids have been isolated too much,” said Keller, who has worked in childcare for 20 years. “Being around other children motivates them to grow and develop. When you are at home with your family all day, especially as an only child, there are no other children who can inspire you and be role models for your behavior.”

Recent research suggests that some babies and young children may develop differently than they did before the coronavirus took over society. Although they may not have been exposed to the virus, experts say their formative years were marked by the effects of stress, trauma and social isolation. That explains why about 3 in 4 California parents with children ages 5 and younger fear their children’s development will suffer from the pandemic, a survey found, and some advocates fear the effects could be long-lasting if not Measures are taken to remedy the situation.

“It’s a big problem, and it’s no surprise. When we think of adverse childhood experiences, it’s likely that every child who experienced the pandemic had an adverse childhood experience,” said Scott Moore, director of Kidango, a nonprofit that operates many daycare centers in the Bay Area. “Science has shown that trauma disrupts normal brain development in young children, so children with a high number of these experiences are likely to have developmental delays.”

A number of recent studies are examining 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, in this cohort. Other research has uncovered a link between increased maternal stress during pregnancy and changes in their infant’s developing brain.

Surely the pandemic has affected every child differently. Some children have developmental delays while others may have thrived. But overall, the data suggests the impact of the pandemic includes everything from rising poverty and declining mental health to learning disabilities.

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

“This stressful time for the brain is disproportionately important,” said Rahil Briggs, national director of HealthySteps, a pediatric nursing program. “While it may be the basis for resilience, as new neural pathways are created and others are pruned, it’s also an incredibly vulnerable time that leaves children vulnerable to developmental disabilities.”

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 brain architecture, experts say. When babies cry or chatter and a caregiver responds, neural connections in the child’s brain are strengthened. This early language exposure shapes the brain’s connectivity for later language learning.

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

A stable and calm environment, which is hard to find during the pandemic, helps boost executive skills like focus and planning, as well as social-emotional health, experts say. Stressed caregivers may not have been as focused on the children’s needs as they should have been. Poverty is another key issue. One study found that babies from low-income families experienced the greatest decline in cognitive function.

“Babies form secure bonds with their caregivers that allow them to feel safe enough to explore and interact, and that’s how they develop both physically and mentally,” Moore said. “If your childcare is closed, or your caregiver is ill, or your parent is in quarantine, it disrupts your safety and thereby slows down your development.”

Toddlers are anything but immune to the emotions of their caregivers. In fact, they’re veritable radar dishes, experts say, picking up on subtle changes in body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. This is a double-edged sword.

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

Though any reduced brain growth is worrisome, developmental hurdles can be overcome, experts say, as levels of engagement and stimulation increase.

“We don’t necessarily expect that developmental differences at 6 months of age predict the future,” said Lauren Shuffrey, developmental neuroscientist and co-author of the Columbia study. “Child development is shaped by many contextual factors.”

Many experts therefore advise against drawing dire conclusions about lifelong consequences from these new studies. Shuffrey, who has a 2-year-old herself, suggests taking a longer look at parenting during a pandemic.

“Our results 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 where needed. Parents should always discuss any concerns about their child’s development with their pediatrician.”

Experts say one of the reasons children are so resilient is that they are hardwired to thrive when nurtured.

“Babies bounce back. When addressed quickly with early intervention and mental health services, developmental delays can be reversed and even the effects of trauma can be healed,” Moore said. “California just made historic investments in childcare, preschool, mental health and special education. We have to make sure it reaches the children who need it most: the babies.”

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

“These kids may need different benchmarks, and they may need more resources to help them catch up, but I truly believe they can do it,” she said. “We just have to take a few extra steps and get them the help they need.”

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