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The Impact of COVID-19 on Babies

Published on Psychology Today

We are soon approaching the 3-year anniversary of the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception, the pandemic is responsible for 600 million cases and over 6 million deaths worldwide. It has also seriously impacted economic, social, and educational institutions all over the world. As a child development specialist, I and many of my colleagues have obviously been concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children. In 2021, the journal Child Development even published a special issue on the developmental impact of COVID-19, but the issue covered a broad range of topics relevant to children and families of all ages. But what are the unique impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our youngest and most vulnerable population?

To address this question, last month, the journal Infancy published their own special issue on the impacts of the pandemic on infants, which I had the pleasure of editing along with several of my colleagues (Koraly Perez-Edgar, Natasha Kirkham, and Jane Herbert). The special issue features 10 papers from researchers in countries across the globe—including the US, Canada, France, Switzerland, the UK, and Israel—providing us with a broad perspective on how the pandemic has affected infants from a range of backgrounds. Here is a summary of what we found out.

The most notable finding from this collection of work is that babies were fairly protected from the direct effects of the pandemic. For example, in the two papers that examined the effects of mask-wearing on infant learning, one reported that mask wearing had no effect on infants’ language skills or socioemotional development (Sperber et al., 2023), and another reported no effect of mask wearing on infants’ ability to track the gaze of others (Wermelinger et al., 2023).

Two additional papers examined the impact of mask-wearing on infants’ face processing, finding little evidence for any impact here either. For example, one paper reported that 9- and 12-month-old infants can recognize that masked faces are real faces, even though masked faces are partially covered (Galusca et al., 2023). Another reported that 6- and 9-month-old infants can remember masked faces when the faces are later presented unmasked (DeBolt & Oakes, 2023), altogether suggesting that babies don’t seem to have a problem recognizing or remembering masked faces.

Even though there was little evidence in the special issue that babies were negatively impacted by the pandemic, the same wasn’t true for parents. A couple of studies reported decreases in overall well-being, and increases in anxiety and depression in the parents most affected by the pandemic (Reinelt, et al., 2023; Sperber et al., 2023). And while there were no direct effects of the pandemic on infants, parents’ mental health and well-being can affect infants indirectly. For example, one study reported that mothers who were more distressed during the pandemic had infants who experienced more emotional issues (Hendry et al., 2023).

But the news for parents wasn’t all bad. One study reported no differences in parents’ emotional availability to their babies before and after the onset of the pandemic, and a normal increase in babies’ social responses to their parents over time (Shakiba et al., 2023). Another study reported no differences in the impact of stress in pregnancy on infants tested pre- and post -pandemic (MacNeill et al., 2023).

There was also evidence that parents’ positive behaviors can protect infants from any negative impact of the pandemic. Engaging with both parents at home during isolation, for example, when babies were previously used to only being at home with one parent most of the time, seemed to help babies better regulate their emotions (Rattaz et al., 2023). Other papers suggested that engaging infants with enriching activities (Hendry et al. 2023), or in video chat with grandparents can also lead to positive outcomes for babies (Roche et al., 2023).

The take home message here is that although it seems that babies (at least in our special issue) did not necessarily seem to be experiencing too many negative effects of the pandemic, parents certainly are, which can affect their infants down the road. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that depression and anxiety in parents have long-term impacts on their children, regardless of whether parents are coping with regular everyday anxiety, or the stress of a global pandemic. So, support for parents during these stressful times is an important step we can take to protect parents, and it turns out, our babies too.

For more information or to read these papers, you can find the full special issue (Infancy, 2023, Volume 28, Issue 1) here:

A version of this post was also published on Infancy's Baby Blog:

Photo by Flickr/Governor Tom Wolf


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