Lockdowns and face mask rules have disrupted the social development of babies born during the pandemic

LONDON – COVID lockdowns and face mask policies have contributed to babies born during the pandemic having poorer communication skills than other infants, a new study reveals.

Forced isolation during the pandemic has meant that children have passed fewer milestones in their first year of life, according to a study by a team from the University of Medicine and Health Sciences RCSI. During their interactions, young babies focus on an adult’s eyes, while older children focus on the mouth.

However, COVID-mandated lockdowns and limited mask-wearing time spent outside the home and children’s access to visual and facial cues. Researchers studied 309 12-month-old pandemic babies born during the first three months of the outbreak, between March and May 2020. The results revealed that many of these children had achieved fewer social communication milestones than other children. .

The team watched 10 developmental outcomes: crawling, walking up sides of furniture, standing alone, picking up tiny objects with thumb and forefinger, stacking bricks, feeding with fingers, knowing own name, speaking a precise and meaningful word, pointing finger objects and wave “goodbye-goodbye.”

The parents rated their own children, and the researchers compared the results with 1,629 other babies. More pandemic babies were able to crawl (97.5% vs. 91%), but fewer expressed a definite, meaningful word (77% vs. 89%). Similarly, only 84% of pandemic babies were able to point fingers, compared to 93% of babies born in “normal times”. Only 88% were able to say goodbye compared to 94.5% of the reference group.

What is causing these stage delays?

Scientists say the rise in crawling was likely due to babies spend more time at home on their floor rather than in cars or horse-drawn carriages. The impact on communication was likely due to confinement, possibly reducing the language repertoire infants heard and reducing the sight of faces that spoke to them without a mask.

These babies also had fewer opportunities to encounter interesting new objects that they could point to, and fewer social contacts where they had the opportunity to learn how to say goodbye.

However, since the study was observational, the scientists publishing this study in Archives of childhood illnesses could not draw definitive conclusions. Despite this, researchers think it’s likely that babies will improve as they get older.

“Whereas neurodevelopment is partly genetically mediated, parental education and social exposure have an important role to play. It is extremely difficult to disentangle the direct effect of early enrichment,” the researchers state in a Press release.

“The social isolation associated with the pandemic appears to have had an impact on communication skills in babies born during the pandemic compared to a historical cohort,” the team continues. “Babies are resilient and curious by nature, and it is very likely that as society re-emerges and social circles increase, their social communication skills will improve. However, this cohort and others will need to be monitored until school age to ensure this is the case.

The pandemic babies were all part of the CORAL study, otherwise known as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on allergic and autoimmune dysregulation in infants born during lockdown. The other infants were part of the BASELINE study – Babies After SCOPE: Evaluating the Longitudinal Impact using Neurological and Nutritional Impact – which included babies born in Ireland between 2008 and 2011.

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

Joel C. Hicks