Pandemic may affect baby’s brain development after years of stress, isolation
Emerging evidence reveals an uptick in developmental delays and challenging behaviors in children belonging to the “COVID generation.”
Born during or shortly before the pandemic, many of these children are talking, walking and interacting later and less frequently. They're more prone to certain behaviors, such as outbursts, physical aggression and separation anxiety.
It's unclear how much the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic fallout are to blame. Experts note many children have had uneven access to health and child care and relatively little exposure to the outside world.
In many cases, the adults in their lives have suffered unrelenting and unprecedented levels of emotional or financial stress – stress pandemic babies have absorbed when their brains are developing at a faster rate than at any other point in the human experience.
Many early childhood experts say more children are not as good at playing with one another, or at any activities that involve sharing or paying attention.
“We (adults) have the language to express what it is we’re feeling, what it is we’re thinking,” says Jamiylah Miller, an advocate in Norristown, Pennsylvania, who provides home-based education under Early Head Start, the federal learning program for families from pregnancy to age 3. “When we disagree, we can say we disagree.
"With children, it shows up primarily in their behavior.”
Pandemic babies slow to talk, walk
Foals can stand within an hour of being born. Baby sea turtles manage to make their way to the shore shortly after hatching. Humans? We exit the womb “totally helpless,” says Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago researcher, professor and pediatric surgeon who specializes in cochlear implants.
Our intelligence and capacities as a species require a brain far too large to sustain in utero. According to Suskind, evolution made a trade-off: Human brains are born underdeveloped, with billions of unconnected neurons, and caregivers are expected "to help finish off the job."
What transpires over the next three years is what, experts say, makes them the most critical period in a person’s development. More than 1 million neural connections are formed every second, laying down the infrastructure of the brain. At least 85% of its development occurs before age 5, and the majority occurs in the first few years of life.
"Learning doesn't start on the first day of school but the first day of life," says Suskind, author of the new book "Parent Nation," which pairs stories and science about early childhood development with a call to action to ease the burdens of parenting in the USA.
Every emotional experience – every environment, every interaction – gives instructions to a young child’s brain, telling it which neuronal connections to make stronger and which it doesn't need and can
prune away. Safe, nurturing, responsive environments and interactions foster healthy brain development.
If a child’s brain is continually exposed to stress, that brain is going to wire with the assumption that the environment is always going to be like that, Suskind says.
Some experts point to increased screen time; other research suggested that mask wearing is a factor. Babies and toddlers watch the way adults’ mouths move as they learn how to form the sounds of letters. Children pick up on facial expressions, which are restricted when half the face is covered by a mask.
It could be years before researchers can adequately measure whether the pandemic had any material, long-term effect on early childhood development. In many cases, the lagging social skills are recoverable.