IQ drop in pandemic-born infants

Why are babies born during the pandemic recording lower IQ scores than expected?
07 September 2021

Interview with 

Sean Deoni, Brown University




Last year over 615000 babies were born in the UK, most of them during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those infants have been brought up in home environments and lived lifestyles that will have been dramatically different from the experiences of children a few years older. For many, there've been none of the normal parent and baby groups, no nursery days or playdates, no contact with grandparents, and mums and dads facing a lot more stress than normal. And there's worrying signs that this is having a detrimental impact on how these young babies are developing. Sean Deoni, from Brown University, has followed over 800 children during the last decade, assessing their mental and physical progress up to the age of three. 120 of his study subjects were born during the pandemic, so he's been able to compare their performances with the more than 600 born before Covid-19 struck and the results are quite worrying...

Sean - What we were basically finding is that when we look across all those kiddos, we found a dramatic reduction in the abilities and skills that the children who've been born since the pandemic have - you know, language abilities, your ability to understand words and say words, the ability to crawl, roll over, all those sorts of things have been dramatically reduced. When we think about what a child at about six months of age, seven months of age, eight months of age have used to be able to do, these children just are not achieving that level. Typically we grade scores on a value of a hundred, and so normally our children are about, you know, between 95, 105, that sort of range kids born since the pandemic are down around the 78 to 80 range. So a significant reduction in what they're able to

Chris - And to what do you attribute this?

Sean - That's the million dollar question in a way, and so we've been trying to understand that and look into the data. Certainly I think a lot of it comes down to the environment that the children are growing up in. So just the lack of being able to go outside, play - being in playgroups at daycares, interaction with their parents, all those sorts of things have been reduced over the last year. As well as just the overall stress of the environment, so parents making sure that they still have jobs, are still able to afford food and housing and whatnot. So all that stress on the parents, which takes away time from their ability to play with their children or spend time with their children. It's really that whole environmental aspect that's been fundamentally changed. And I think that's what's driving a lot of these things we're seeing

Chris - One newish mother asked me the other day about the impact of face coverings and young babies, seeing their mum or dad's face and facial expression and the impact for language development.

Sean - Absolutely. So there's no question that one of the biggest things that we have in our games and tests that we do in kids before and after the pandemic has been that our team is wearing masks. And as you say, you typically sort of think about that in terms of language, right? Can they see your facial expressions? Can they see how your lips are moving as you're making words? What I think is surprising in our results is that we're seeing these deficits in motor aspects. So things like crawling, standing up, walking, taking first steps. So things that you wouldn't normally associate with those facial expressions. And so, although masks are probably playing an important role, it's not the only thing that's coming into this.

Chris - Can you rule out mothers catching coronavirus when they're pregnant? I mean, could that be a contributor here, that the illness in the mother is in some way affected. Almost like a congenital problem, like Zika, do you think that could be a component or did you rule that out in the study?

Sean - So these kids were all born to moms who were healthy during pregnancy. Although when we talk about healthy, this is self-reported. So the mothers may have been asymptomatic, but didn't know. So that's certainly a possibility, but in general, most of these children and their mothers were healthy during pregnancy. So much more of an impact of just the environmental changes at this point.

Chris - And, do you think this is permanent? Because obviously the question that's going to be going through many new parents' minds, having heard what you're saying is "my goodness, is my child damaged forever?" Do you think the children will catch up?

Sean - Well, that's definitely the billion dollar question. And I certainly think, you know, this isn't to be alarmist by any stretch. I think this is a single study, a single finding, that raises questions and raises the possibility. I don't think that these things are permanent by any stretch. You know, children are incredibly resilient. And we talk about that resilience a lot. That said, we also talk about the importance of the first thousand days. We hear that a lot, right? The importance of those first two years of life in setting up those long term trajectories of development and pathways of health. And so the window of opportunity for having really solid interventions, and kind of course correcting for this, is now. And so I think this is the time to be acting. So again, not to be alarmist, but at the same time, you know, if there are things that we can be doing, playing with our children, getting back together, you know, this is the time, better sooner than later.

Chris - What advice can you offer parents then? Especially if they're just about to have a baby, to make sure that their children have the least risk of the sorts of changes you're seeing here happening to them.

Sean - That's a great question as well. And you know, we're certainly not here to give sermons and whatnot, but at the same time, I think when it comes down to it, it all comes down to playing with your child, right, love your child. And if you do that, you'll end up playing with your children, interacting with them, stimulating them, and both helping your mental health as a parent, but also helping their mental health and their development. So even if we can squeak out those 10 minutes between Zoom calls, that half an hour to an hour for bath time and reading time before bed, all those sorts of little things really add up and make a huge amount of difference. Similarly, getting outside, getting out to playgrounds, play, interact with other families, and just trying to get back to that environment that we all had as kids and that kids had even a couple of years ago.


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