The ‘Pandemic Effect’

My youngest was born in the summer of 2020. He hasn’t yet met his extended family or left Vancouver Island; he has never seen his pediatrician without a mask or visited a play group. He is our pandemic baby. Like other parents, I wondered if being born into the pandemic could affect early development, so I turned to science for answers.

The pandemic has affected everyone but, although we are all in the same storm, we are in different boats. The toll on health, finances, medical care and available support has been much greater for some families than others, and its effects on babies, direct and indirect, are challenging to measure. So I chose to focus on one aspect: reduced interactions with the outside world. Will our pandemic babies be disadvantaged? Will their cognitive or social-emotional development be affected?

Cognitive development

During the first year, babies gradually get better at gathering and organizing information, remembering, problem solving and predicting events. Did you know babies use universal learning methods that resemble scientific research? Their brains constantly look for patterns in the world around them, making mental maps: “When I see this happen, I can expect that.” They also look for surprise events that don’t fit into patterns they learned previously. For example, by about 5 months babies learn that dropped objects fall down, so a floating balloon is likely to surprise them.

- Advertisement -

Fortunately, your home environment provides many opportunities for seeing patterns and noticing new things. It’s perfect, actually. Your baby can learn about physics (“My ducky floats in the water…but this heavy spoon from the kitchen does not”), emotions (“When my brother cries he is usually sad…and sometimes frustrated”) and relationships between people (“When I smile, daddy smiles back…but not if he’s looking away”). And novelty? Well, everything is new to babies, so they see plenty of surprises even in the calmest of homes. In fact, a calm, consistent home environment helps babies stay rested and protects them from overstimulation which, in turn, helps learning: it’s easier for a well-rested baby to notice new things and, when he goes to sleep, to integrate experiences into memory. Being at home more may help babies learn.

But you might have heard of a recent study led by Dr. Sean Deoni, in which babies born during the pandemic showed a significant reduction in scores on cognitive development tests. The Guardian reported that pandemic babies had “shockingly low” scores, at levels not typically seen outside of major cognitive disorders. This is concerning. However, I believe such conclusions are premature. Babies were tested in the lab by a stranger wearing a face covering; I imagine some pandemic-born babies may have felt in this environment what you and I would feel if we were abducted by aliens. (I don’t think I would perform my best on an IQ test from an alien spaceship!). And other babies might have struggled to concentrate on tasks the researchers were asking them to do because the lab environment was so novel and interesting to them. Without measures of cognitive development taken in babies’ homes we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this study.

Social-emotional development

In supportive environments babies get better and better at communicating their needs and feelings, understanding emotions and carrying forward a sense of competence and trust.

Our babies are born capable and aware. Newborns can already tell if someone is looking at them or away from them. One-month-olds perceive facial expressions: when a parent assumes a sombre face showing no emotion, baby’s heart activity changes in a distinct way that indicates distress and active coping. By six months babies learn to anticipate actions they see and experience regularly and can even recognize whether behaviours of others are helpful or unhelpful.

What babies accomplish in their first year—how much they learn and change—is truly astounding. We, parents and caregivers, can do a lot to support their social-emotional development. But science suggests that diverse interactions with the outside world are not critical.

According to the theory of attachment, most important for healthy social-emotional development is a close, committed relationship with one or more adults. One or more. It is, of course, wonderful for a baby to be part of a loving community, but not having that during the first year still allows for secure attachment.

What about mask-wearing? Having been surrounded by people in masks, could our babies have trouble connecting with others? A recent study by Dr. Ed Tronick and Nancy Snidman suggests that babies don’t mind when mom puts on a mask. Dr. Tronick is widely known for the Still Face Experiment: when moms stopped mid-play and assumed an unemotional “still” face, babies showed surprise followed by distress. Did mask wearing result in a similar response? Happily, the researchers found it doesn’t. Almost all babies reacted in some way to their mom putting a mask on and taking it off, but mask wearing did not disrupt their ongoing interaction. As Dr. Alison Gopnik wrote in her analysis of this study, “Babies can look through the masks and just see the love underneath.”

Our son is now 19 months old. Has he done and seen less than his sisters by this age? Yes. Do I wish he got to spend time with our extended family? Yes, absolutely. But he got to do more in other ways: he snuggled with his working-at-home dad more; he saw his sisters giggle (and squabble) more; he explored every inch of our small backyard at his own pace; his sleeping and eating habits developed against the backdrop of the slow, predictable days at home. I can’t wait for him to experience more of the world. For now, I trust that he will be okay.

Vancouver Island's Parenting Resource