There were no differences between the scores of infants exposed to COVID-19 in utero and those born during the pandemic whose mothers did not contract COVID-19 during pregnancy.
Investigators at Columbia University found that babies born during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic scored lower on a developmental screening test of social and motor skills at 6 months, regardless of whether their mothers had COVID-19 during pregnancy, compared to infants born just before the pandemic.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, included 255 babies born at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and Allen Hospital between March and December 2020.
“Infants born to mothers who have viral infections during pregnancy have a higher risk of neurodevelopmental deficits, so we thought we would find some changes in the neurodevelopment of babies whose mothers had COVID during pregnancy,” lead investigator Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD, said in a press release.
Dumitriu was involved in the organization of studies at the beginning of the pandemic to investigate the impact of the virus on infants through the COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcomes Initiative. In an early study, a team discovered that mothers do not pass the SARS-CoV-2 virus onto their fetuses. However, it is known that viral illnesses during pregnancy can increase the risk of neurodevelopmental delays in children through activation of the mother’s immune system.
“The developmental trajectory of an infant begins before birth,” Dumitriu said in the press release. “With potentially millions of infants who may have been exposed to COVID in utero, and even more mothers just living through the stress of the pandemic, there is a critical need to understand the neurodevelopmental effects of the pandemic on future generations.”
In the current study, researchers analyzed responses from a questionnaire that pediatricians give to parents to evaluate aspects of infant development, including communication, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving, and social skills. Nearly half of the mothers in the study had COVID-19 at some point during pregnancy, although most of the illnesses were mild or asymptomatic, according to the study results.
The researchers found no differences between the scores of infants who were exposed to COVID-19 in utero and those born during the pandemic whose mothers did not contract COVID-19 during pregnancy. However, average scores among all infants born during the pandemic were lower than the gross motor, fine motor, and social skills of 62 pre-pandemic infants born at the same hospitals.
“We want parents to know that the findings in our small study do not necessarily mean that this generation will be impaired later in life,” Dumitriu said in the press release. “This is still a very early developmental stage with lots of opportunities to intervene and get these babies onto the right developmental trajectory.”
Although the study did not measure maternal stress during pregnancy, it is possible that the stress caused by the pandemic explains the decrease in motor and social skills found in infants born during the pandemic. Earlier studies have found that maternal stress in the earliest stages of pregnancy has a more significant effect on socioemotional functioning in infants than stress later in pregnancy.
The researchers in the current study found a similar trend. According to the study results, infants whose mothers were in the first trimester of pregnancy at the height of the pandemic had the lowest neurodevelopmental scores. Other factors, including fewer social interactions and altered interactions with stressed caregivers, could help explain why babies born during the pandemic have weaker social and motor skills.
“We were surprised to find absolutely no signal suggesting that exposure to COVID while in utero was linked to neurodevelopmental deficits,” Dumitriu said in the press release. “Rather, being in the womb of a mother experiencing the pandemic was associated with slightly lower scores in areas such as motor and social skills, though not in others, such as communication or problem-solving skills. The results suggest that the huge amount of stress felt by pregnant mothers during these unprecedented times may have played a role.”
Babies Born During Pandemic’s First Year Score Slightly Lower on a Developmental Screening Test. News release. Columbia University Irving Medical Center; January 4, 2022. Accessed February 10, 2022. https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/babies-born-during-pandemics-first-year-score-slightly-lower-developmental-screening-test