Babies and toddlers may exit the pandemic with lower IQs, researchers have found
While the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on every global citizen in some way, it may be having a profound impact on babies and toddlers, researchers say, with early findings showing that babies born during the pandemic may have lower IQ scores than those born before it.
A new study, conducted by academics from five universities, has found that babies who came into the world before the coronavirus had a cognitive score hovering around 100, while babies born during the pandemic fell sharply, to around 78 – 22 points lower than what’s considered normal.
Lead author Associate Professor Sean Deoni described the findings as shocking.
“The drop from a mean of 100 to a mean of 78 is large. When you think of breastfeeding, for example, we’re usually talking about 5 points’ difference; we expect most children to be between 85-115, with only 16 per cent being less than 85. Almost all of our kiddos born since the pandemic are now at that lower level.”
Researchers believe that part of the ‘why’ behind their findings may lie in the first thousand days of a child’s life, long proven to be a “window of opportunity” for brain growth, but also a time of great vulnerability.
Less parental stimulation during this window, coupled with a lack of engagement with other children may partly explain the drop. The decreased interaction with others and the outside world may inhibit the growth of neural connections that drive child development.
The study, which is in pre-print and is yet to be peer reviewed, may add to the “abundant” evidence that the pandemic has impacted children on a variety of fronts, ranging from literacy lags and mental health issues to deepening poverty, all of which can profoundly influence their education.
To gather their findings researchers from Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University compared childhood cognitive scores from 2020 and 2021 with those from the decade before, roughly 2011-2019. They examined about 700 healthy children aged between 3 months to 3 years, using a system called the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, which evaluates the cognitive and motor development of babies and converts that score into IQ numbers.
Children were assessed on key metrics, such as fine and gross motor control, visual reception and language. Babies were evaluated on developmentally appropriate benchmarks, like babbling, crawling and rolling over.
While the researchers went into their exploration “keenly aware of the upheavals of the pandemic” they found themselves surprised by the steep nature of the decline in cognitive ability, having assumed babies and toddlers would be more insulated from disruptions to life than their older counterparts.
Outsized impact on infants
The researchers found that even in families where no one contracted COVID, the impact of social distancing and other restrictions played their part, with researchers describing the brain’s adaptive plasticity as “a double edged sword.”
“While positive and enriching environments can promote healthy brain development, neglect, insecurity, stress, and lack of stimulation can impair maturing brain systems and disrupt cognitive and behavioural outcomes,” the researchers noted.
Among the environmental factors that may have played a role are a decrease of stimulation from parents, a lack of engagement with other children and increased exposure to TV and computers, researchers say. These reduced social interactions may be the culprit. Experts say infants may be learning the wrong lessons just as the foundation of their brain is being laid.
Associate Professor Deoni said that, as a parent of two who has also struggled with balancing the need to care for and educate children whilst meeting employment obligations, he understands the challenges, but as a researcher suspects that diminished parental attention is behind the drop in IQ.
“Parents are stressed and frazzled, and that interaction the child would normally get has decreased substantially,” he said. “I think we’ve all suffered, particularly those who are balancing multiple jobs and child care, in trying to find playtime or reading time, but it’s so important.”
“In this pandemic, the parents are present at home, but they are unavailable to their children because of remote work,” another researcher added. “If they cry or flirt or laugh, their parents may not respond as they had expected. That is so confusing to children.”
Babies are finely tuned to moods of families
Babies, the researchers noted, are “like radar dishes” for the emotional state of those around them, and continued exposure to stress can derail behaviour and brain development, especially in very young children, whose brains are “extra sensitive and disproportionately receptive to input.”
Babies are also “social animals” who crave stimulation. While parents often spend endless hours cuddling and cooing at their newborns, the heightened trauma of the pandemic, from fear of disease to economic hardship, may have detracted from that quality bonding time. A sense of serenity and emotional stability has been in short supply since the virus upended society, researchers suggested.
“Infants are inherently competent in their ability to initiate relationships, explore, seek meaning, and learn,” the study notes, “but are vulnerable and depend entirely on caregivers for their survival, emotional security, modeling of behaviors, and the nature and rules of the physical and socio-cultural world that they inhabit.”
Babies may not be getting enough of the crucial “serve and return” interactions that help shape brain architecture, and while parents are generally “hard wired” to put the needs of children first, the pandemic has made it challenging to do so, with many struggling with their own mental health.
The long and grueling nature of the pandemic also means that even caregivers with considerable resilience might be showing signs of fatigue. School closures, breakthrough infections and vaccine-resistant variants add to the pressure families are facing.
Coping resources are being used to navigate constant changes and grief and loss as the pandemic continues, and the coping resources of parents are not being replenished by frequent, warm and nurturing social interactions with family and friends. This, researchers said, leaves people “raw and unprotected to the relentlessness of their plight.”
For families living in poverty, the challenges are magnified, with low income children faring the worst in the study.
Data as a driver for change
Despite the significant obstacles and challenges, the researchers remain hopeful that the data will motivate parents and other caregivers to rise to the challenge of infant and toddler engagement and strive for ample opportunities for play, exercise and social interaction for babies and toddlers.
“I would certainly hope that the gap in cognitive abilities can be remedied and that it doesn’t have long-lasting impacts,” Associate Professor Deoni said.
To access the provisional findings, please see here.