Babies of COVID-19: The impact of being born during the pandemic – National

For new mom Angela Bachmann, it has been a jittery few months.

The Toronto resident gave birth to her first child, baby girl Ruby, on March 29, 2022.

COVID-19 restrictions meant her husband could not accompany her to pre-birth hospital visits, while at the same time the couple was nervous about catching the virus while the baby was still in the womb.

“It was more when I was pregnant that I was worried what happens to her if I get it (COVID-19),” Bachmann, 33, said.

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Baby Ruby and thousands of others in Canada opened their eyes to a world of COVID-19, where mask-wearing, physical distancing and lockdowns have dominated much of everyday life.

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“It would have been worse if it was at the very beginning (of the pandemic) and you’re not allowed to go out or anything,” said Bachmann.

The Bachmann’s welcomed their first born, Ruby, in March 2022.

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The first year of the pandemic alone saw the birth of 358,604 children nationwide, according to Statistics Canada.

Being born in an environment of social isolation and anxiety around COVID-19 has had an impact on early child development with delayed motor and language skills, pediatricians say.

“Babies brains are really complex and so it’s really essential in those first few months of life that they do have a lot of stimulation because that’s how all those neural pathways develop… that regulate their emotion, their language, their cognition and the attachment that they have to others,” said Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the CHU Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal.

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Kakkar pointed to a U.S. study published in the medical journal, JAMA Pediatrics, in January 2022.

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Researchers at Columbia University looked at 255 infants born between March and December 2020 and found that they had significantly lower scores on gross motor, fine motor and personal-social subdomains compared to babies born pre-pandemic.

The early findings support the need for long-term monitoring of children born during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors said.

Meanwhile, a preprint Canadian study — not peer-reviewed — released in October 2021 looked at the structural impact on the brain of babies born to moms who reported higher levels of prenatal distress with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Our findings suggest a potentially long-lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and show that social support acts as a protective factor not just for pregnant individuals, but also for their developing infants,” the authors wrote.

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Kakkar stressed that parents should take their children who were born during COVID-19 for developmental assessment, so doctors can intervene in case of any “red flags”.

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“It’s really important, I think, as a general message, that children start going to their regular pediatric follow-ups, which many of them haven’t had in person for a really long time,” she told Global News.

COVID-19 restrictions and strict lockdowns have meant newborn babies and infants have not been exposed to routine childhood illnesses, such as common-cold viruses, either through the mother in the womb or their older siblings, experts say.

This makes infants more susceptible to viral infections, said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto.

That is why there has been a change in the cycles of infection for viruses such as influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as well as an increase in the severity, Banerji told Global News.

“A lot of the viruses have shifted their seasons, but also some of the viruses are more severe because the babies haven’t been exposed to them through their maternal antibodies,” she said.

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The lack of exposure could make for a “severe first year” of daycare for many kids, but it doesn’t change their actual immune system, said Kakkar.

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“If they haven’t had these colds and these routine common infections, they might get them in the year(s) to come.”

But none of those frequent viral infections are life threatening, she added.

Direct impact of COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, children have been least affected by COVID-19, but they’re not immune to the virus.

Hospitalizations and deaths in young children, especially those who don’t have other severe chronic medical conditions, remain very rare, according to experts.

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“For most children who get COVID, it’s a relatively minor infection, but some kids can get very, very sick with it,” said Banerji.

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A growing body of research suggests that pregnant women are at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and getting the disease during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, stillbirth and other maternal and neonatal complications.

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Meanwhile, some studies show that mothers who were vaccinated against COVID-19 during pregnancy can pass on antibodies to their newborns through breast milk and the placenta.

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Wednesday also suggested a reduced risk of testing positive for COVID-19 during the first four months of life among infants born to mothers who were vaccinated during pregnancy.

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So far, no COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for children below the age of five.

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Bachmann said being fully vaccinated before giving birth eased some of her concerns — both for her own protection as well as the baby’s.

Amid COVID-19 lockdowns and isolation, many couples, especially new parents, have missed out on much-needed social support during the first few months of parenthood.

“For first-time parents, it was exceptionally difficult,” said Kakkar.

“They really missed that extended family support and also the social support of having other moms … and other young families around to sort of help them and really encourage them in that first year.”

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As a new mom, Bachmann has been using the “What To Expect” app, which she found very helpful during pregnancy and now in post-partum.

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“Usually if I have something which I’m not sure (about), I’m pretty sure someone wrote the question already so you can go check. And also, it shows you the development of your kid.”

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Experts are confident that once things start going back to normal, babies will adapt post-pandemic.

For some kids, it may take a period of time to adjust, but in general, children are “very resilient and flexible,” said Banerji.

Kakkar agreed, saying babies’ brains are “very plastic” and there is a lot of room for improvement.

“There’s nothing to suggest that what we’re seeing now is going to affect them permanently in the long term,” she said.

“But if kids are being identified now with language delays or emotional dysregulation, now is the time to intervene.”

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© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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