A study showed that 1-year-olds born in 2020 were less likely to point, speak a full sentence, or wave goodbye than those born before the pandemic.
A study showed that babies born in Covid-related lockdowns took longer to reach certain milestones than those born pre-pandemic.
Parents often observed their infants point at objects as early as 9 months of age, before Covid was introduced. Many babies began to speak their first words by the age of one year.
Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland published a new study Tuesday that found Irish infants born between March 2020 to May 2020 had difficulty communicating at one year of age than their counterparts born in 2008 or 2011.
Between 2008 and 2011, 89% of the infants studied could speak a complete word such as “bowl” or cup at 12 months, compared with 77% of infants born in the first months of the pandemic. The percentage of infants who could point to objects dropped from 93% to 84% and that could wave goodbye fell from 94% to 88%.
These results were based on a questionnaire that was sent to the parents of 309 infants in Ireland during the pandemic. Each infant was asked by his or her parents whether he/she could complete 10 tasks such as stacking bricks or standing up. These results were then compared to a longitudinal study that assessed the same 10 skills in 2008 and 2011. The surveys were completed by both parents as close as possible to the birthday of their child.
Between March 2020 and April 2021 Ireland was under strict lockdown. People were required to stay at home for all other activities. Residents were forbidden from eating in restaurants and those who could work at their homes were asked to refrain. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules could face a fine.
The study’s author, Dr. Susan Byrne (a pediatric neurologist at the Royal College of Surgeons), stated that 25% of the babies in her research had never met another baby their age before their first birthday. The babies were six months old when their families saw four people outside their homes on average. Each infant was also only kissed once by three adults, which included their parents.
Byrne stated that it was not surprising that babies’ communication skills were delayed. “If no one is coming to your home to leave again, then you won’t learn how to say “bye, bye,”
Byrne stated that some babies weren’t as able to hear or see as many people talk. She suggested that difficulty in pointing could be because they weren’t exposed to new stimuli outside of what was already inside their home.
Byrne stated that children point out when something is lost and they are interested in finding it. You know all the details if you have lived in your home for a long time. Nothing’s new.”
These findings are similar to previous research which suggested that the pandemic affected babies’ development. China researchers found that 1-year-olds who had been exposed to the pandemic in the first months may have suffered delayed development of fine motor skills. For example, they were unable to pick up Cheerios using a thumb and forefinger. These findings also showed that firstborn children turning 1 in 2020 had delayed communication skills.
Columbia University researchers discovered that babies who were born in New York City between March and December 2020 had six months fewer motor and social skills than those born between November 2017 to January 2020.
These researchers speculated that the contributing factor could have been the mother’s emotional state during pregnancy. Other studies have shown that stress or loneliness can alter a child’s brain development or behavior after birth. If parents felt isolated or depressed, they may have struggled to connect with their babies.
Lauren Shuffrey is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of the earlier study. “It could be a double-edged weapon, where an adverse environment after birth — so not being in touch with the social world — can make these effects worse,” she said.
Shuffrey stated that a baby’s social interaction with others is likely to have less impact on their communication skills in the first year than the quality.
She said, “Having someone socially involved with the infant, regardless of whether it be one person or many — that’s the most important thing.”
These delays are not expected to last forever, nor Byrne or Shuffrey.
Shuffrey stated that he doesn’t believe that small developmental differences in these children are indicative of developmental delays. These are very small differences, and we know infants’ brains are extremely malleable.
Shuffrey stated that her daughter, who was born during the pandemic, has moved from being isolated to social interaction and attending nursery school. She also enjoys playing with other children. She believes that these new experiences will help her daughter develop socially, even though there is still catching up.
Researchers in Ireland discovered that 97% of pandemic infants were capable of crawling at one year, contrary to other trends. Byrne suggested that this could be because the babies spent more time in lockdown at home and less time in car seats or strollers.
Her team will continue to monitor the same babies until age 2 to see if communication skills improve.
Byrne stated that he believes the two-year data will be very informative. “At 2 you are better equipped to see all the developmental milestones. Because children can do more, it’s easier to get a better idea of their abilities.