Covid-19: The »pandemic« generation

Pregnancy and the stress of the pandemic

The pandemic could also affect children’s prenatal development. Various teams have been looking for clues in this direction, including psychologist Catherine Lebel, from the University of Calgary in Canada. With her colleagues, she interviewed more than 8,000 pregnant women during the pandemic. Almost half said they experienced symptoms of anxiety, and a third had symptoms of depression — a significantly higher percentage than in the pre-pandemic years. How did this stress affect babies in the womb?

To find out, the researchers examined the brains of 75 babies three months after birth using magnetic resonance imaging techniques. In your pre-release put online in October 2021 They show a difference: if the mothers reported greater prenatal stress, such as more frequent symptoms of anxiety or depression, then their children also showed more frequent certain differences in structural connections in the brain – those between the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional processing , and the prefrontal cortex, an area that processes executive skills.

Previously, Lebel and her team in a smaller study already noticed a connection between prenatal depression and the same differences in brain connectivity. They hypothesized that these brain changes in boys correlate with aggressive and hyperactive behavior in preschool age. other researchers have studied connectivity changes in adults: There appears to be a risk factor for depression and anxiety.

The later development of children born during the pandemic could also be influenced by prenatal stress. This is indicated by research such as a study by psychologist Livio Provenzi of the IRCCS Mondino Foundation in Pavia, Italy there. His team observed 12-week-old babies born to mothers who reported their levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy. The analysis showed that babies with more stressed and anxious parents at the age of three months were less able to regulate emotions and attention – for example, they lost interest in social stimuli more quickly and were more difficult to calm down.

Moriah Thomason from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine also examines the effects of maternal stress on the child’s brain and behavior in a separate study. It was not yet completed at the beginning of 2022. The child and adolescent psychologist emphasizes one point: While there are all sorts of concerns about the possible effects of prenatal stress on babies born during the pandemic, it cannot be inferred from the first early studies that babies will have problems for the rest of their lives . »Children are very adaptable and flexible. The situation will improve and we expect that children will be able to cope well with many events,” says Thomason. She doesn’t expect to ever have to state that the pandemic has brought up a whole generation of damaged children.

Research on the aftermath of past disasters seems to confirm this: stress in the womb can be harmful to babies, but does not have to have long-term effects. That proves it For example, a study on the consequences of severe flooding in Queensland, Australia, in 2011: Children born to mothers who were severely stressed in the wake of the disaster showed deficits in problem solving and social skills at the age of six months when compared to their peers of mothers who were less affected. But that changed over time: At the age of 30 months, this effect was no longer recognizable. The toddlers also performed better the more the parents responded to the needs of the babies.

What to do, where is caution advised?

At the beginning of 2022, research on the consequences of the pandemic on babies provided a mixed, still preliminary picture: Many scientists believe that it is still too early for reliable and meaningful interpretations. Medical psychologist Catherine Monk, a colleague of Dimitriu at the NewYork-Presbyterian, says it could turn out that the first indications from early and unpublished studies are not confirmed in the end. This could have various causes. It is conceivable, for example, that those parents who decided to participate in the first studies did not form a representative sample. For example, you may have noticed changes in the children’s behavior and were therefore particularly concerned. There may also have been a small but disruptive impact that during the pandemic, people had to wear face masks for psychological tests that required an in-person appearance, says Monk.

In addition, the first, quickly conducted studies on the subject can be subject to the incentive to publish particularly interesting results. Thomason already pointed this out in 2021 in an opinion piece in the journal »JAMA Pediatrics«. Scientists are »quickly there when it comes to uncovering changes that are harmful to health. Things like that get media attention, and they get published in high-profile magazines,” she says.

»Children are so adaptable – they should be able to take a lot of what has happened around them«
(Moriah Thomason, Kinderpsychologin)

Larger studies and collaborations that are already being initiated by various researchers and sponsors should paint a clearer picture. The US National Institute on Drug Abuse is funding research as part of the “Healthy Brain and Child Development Study”: Research is being conducted into how maternal stress and drug use affect child development during the pandemic. Newly founded networks and conferences are intended to bring researchers together and promote the exchange of new data. In March 2020, Thomason had already launched the international COVID Generation Research Alliance: addressed are scientists who study families with young children during the pandemic. The alliance, which hosted a research summit in November 2021, includes researchers from 14 countries from North and South America to Europe, Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Help to grow and shake off

Even if the pandemic really changes children, the brains of six-month-olds are malleable, says Dumitriu, so their development can be encouraged and there is always enough time to repair any damage and a public health crisis scenario to circumnavigate. Parents can also help by regularly playing and talking with their young children and giving them opportunities to interact with others in a safe environment. Funding programs to support families and children can also make a difference. Lebel’s study proves that the prenatal stress on expectant mothers decreases significantly if they receive social support from close relatives during pregnancy. There is still a lot of potential here, in and around the ecosystem of pregnancy care, says Monk.

In the end, researchers began to suspect that most children will probably be able to cope with the side effects of the pandemic – even if they will probably have to struggle more than before. In difficult cases, we should take countermeasures as soon as possible, warns Deoni: “Children are undoubtedly very resilient, but we also know how important the first 1000 days of a child’s life are. This is where the decisive foundations are formed.« At the beginning of 2022, the first pandemic babies born in March 2020 are already over 650 days old. These children are a product of their environment, says Deoni: In the end, the decisive factor will be what input we give them, how we play with them, read to them and love them.

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