Home Babies needs Will the pandemic leave a lasting mark on babies’ brains?

Will the pandemic leave a lasting mark on babies’ brains?

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Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource

A mother smiles at her baby while a nurse visits her home.

Donise Keller, childminder in Antioch, takes care of a little boy struggling with developmental delays. The 3.5-year-old does not talk much and does not like interacting with other children. She fears he is one of many youngsters whose growth has been stunted by the pandemic, which has dominated his short life.

“These kids have been too isolated,” said Keller, who has worked in the child care industry for 20 years. “The presence of other children is what motivates them to grow and develop. If you’re home all day with your family, especially as an only child, there are no other children to inspire and role model you.

Emerging research suggests that some babies and toddlers may develop differently than they did before the coronavirus disrupted society. Although they may not have been exposed to the virus, experts say their formative years were shaped by the impact of stress, trauma and social isolation. This explains why about 3 in 4 California parents with children 5 and under fear their children’s development will suffer as a result of the pandemic, a survey has found, and some advocates fear the effects will be lasting if measures are not taken. are not taken to remedy it. the situation.

“It’s a big concern, and it’s no surprise. When we think about negative childhood experiences, probably every child who has lived through the pandemic has had a negative childhood experience,” said Scott Moore, director of Kidango, a nonprofit that runs many Bay Area daycares. “Science has shown that trauma disrupts normal brain development in young children, which is why children who go through many of these experiences are at risk for developmental delays.”

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

Certainly, the pandemic has affected each child differently. Some children are experiencing developmental delays while others may have thrived. But overall, the data suggests 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 as they have never known life without Covid. The first three years of life are often described as a window of opportunity for the brain, experts say, a time of great promise but also great risk. The most critical growth occurs early, with brain size doubling in the first year.

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

One of the biggest problems of the pandemic, experts say, is that babies may not be getting enough of the “serve and return” interactions that help build brain architecture. When babies cry or babble and a caregiver responds, neural connections are strengthened in the child’s brain. This early exposure to speech shapes brain 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 mask-wearing.”

A stable and calm environment, hard to come by during the pandemic, helps foster executive function skills, such as concentration and planning, and 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 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 daycare closes or your carer is sick or your relative has to quarantine, it disrupts your safety and thus slows down your development.”

Infants are far from immune to the emotions of their caregivers. In fact, they’re radar, experts say, detecting subtle changes in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. It’s a double-edged sword.

“We know from research that children whose parents are depressed and unable to respond to their social calls often become very anxious,” said Heidi M. Feldman, professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine. “In this pandemic, I think kids are going through a variation of that stressful situation.”

However, while any decline in brain growth is cause for concern, developmental barriers can be overcome, experts say, if the level of engagement and stimulation increases.

“We don’t necessarily expect developmental differences at 6 months to be predictive of the future,” said Lauren Shuffrey, 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 herself, suggests taking a longer view of parenting during a pandemic.

“Our results don’t necessarily indicate that this generation will be impaired later in life,” Shuffrey said. “It will be important to continue monitoring 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.

According to experts, one of the reasons children are so resilient is that they are hardwired to thrive when nurtured.

“Babies bounce. If treated early with early intervention and mental health services, developmental delays can be resolved, even the effects of trauma can be healed,” Moore said. “California 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 most: babies.

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

“These kids 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 a few more steps and get them the help they need.”

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