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Infant development and COVID, Vol. 2
We’re here to help you stay on top of the latest research findings and provide pointers for how to discuss them with families.
December 11, 2022
As we approach the 3-year anniversary of the pandemic(!), just about all the children on our EI caseloads were born during the pandemic or in its immediate wake. That means that we’re often fielding questions about how they are faring. We’ve covered this topic previously, but research continues to emerge. First, we’ll go over what new research has come out, and then we’ll give you some pointers for how to approach these conversations with families and colleagues.
“Pandemic-associated social isolation appears to have impacted social communication skills in babies born during the pandemic compared with a historical cohort.”
– Byrne et al., 2022
The results we’re seeing vary a lot, depending on the study design and sampling. This was true for previous findings, and remains true for new research:
While it can be frustrating to try to make sense of the conflicting findings, the complexity of the research represents the complexity of the question. It does appear that the pandemic affected infants’ language and social development, but to what extent, in what ways, and for whom isn't well understood yet.
Most likely yes to some extent, but the research hasn’t (and likely won’t be able to) give us a clear answer on that. Remember, causation is incredibly tricky to demonstrate in these scenarios. Morag et al. published a small (n=50) study utilizing parent surveys that found children who spent more time with masked adults had smaller expressive vocabularies but didn’t differ in receptive vocabularies. We would need a lot bigger and more robust studies to make any large-scale conclusions on this topic. We do know, however, that mask use helps to limit the spread of COVID-19, and should be used as needed to protect children and their caregivers.
So far, the results seem encouraging, but different studies contradict each other and are inconclusive:
A question to consider for all of these studies, as was raised by the commentary, is: Is in-utero exposure causing delays, or is it all of the swirling factors surrounding the pandemic that are at play? We likely won’t ever have a study that can tell us this with any degree of certainty.
We can help to shape dialogue from fear-driven conversations to productive lines of thinking about how we can support children and meet them where they’re at. Here are three pointers to help us do that:
Understanding these general rules of thumb can go a long way in making sense of all of the different information out there.
One theme that often comes up in these conversations is the idea of needing to help kids “catch up.” This can reinforce the idea that there is a specific benchmark that children need to hit in order to “be OK.” But milestones (ah, remember when we deep-dived into those this past January?) are just one part of the picture and tell a limited story of children’s development.
We can approach these conversations from a couple different lines of thinking: aversive and appetitive, which Callahan highlights in his work around goal-setting. The terms are a little weird, but bear with us—we think the concepts behind them are helpful:
Consider the following examples:
Rather than being driven by fear, let’s focus our energy and efforts towards meeting children where they are at. We can’t change the past, but we can work together to offer the opportunities and support that these children need.
Ayed, M., Embaireeg, A., Kartam, M., More, K., Alqallaf, M., AlNafisi, A., Alsaffar, Z., Bahzad, Z., Buhamad, Y., Alsayegh, H., Al-Fouzan, W., & Alkandari, H. (2022). Neurodevelopmental outcomes of infants born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infections during pregnancy: A national prospective study in Kuwait. BMC Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12887-022-03359-2
Byrne, S., Sledge, H., Franklin, R., Boland, F., Murray, D. M., & Hourihane, J. (2022). Social communication skill attainment in babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic: A birth cohort study. Archives of Disease in Childhood. https://doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2021-323441
Edlow, A. G., Castro, V. M., Shook, L. L., Kaimal, A. J., & Perlis, R. H. (2022). Neurodevelopmental outcomes at 1 year in infants of mothers who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy. JAMA Network Open. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.15787
Martenot, A., Labbassi, I., Delfils-Stern, A., Deruelle, P., & Kuhn, P. (2022). Medical and neurodevelopmental outcomes at 10 months of age in infants born at 34 weeks plus to mothers with COVID-19. Acta Paediatrica. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.16570
Metz, T. D. (2022). Is it exposure to the pandemic or to maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection that is adversely affecting early childhood neurodevelopment? JAMA Network Open. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.15793
Morag, I., Berezin, A., Zivan, M., & Horowitz-Kraus, T. (2022). Children exposed to masked adults in the first year of life demonstrated lower expressive vocabulary. Acta Paediatrica. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.16505
Sperber, J. F., Hart, E. R., Troller-Renfree, S. V., Watts, T. W., & Noble, K. G. (2022). The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on infant development and maternal mental health in the first 2 years of life. Infancy. https://doi.org/10.1111/infa.12511
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