A version of this story was originally published by Parenting Translator. Sign up for the newsletter and follow Parenting Translator on Instagram. This post was edited for length.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many parents and experts have raised concerns that the pandemic (and all of its terrible side effects) would also impact the development of children. Slowly, a body of research is coming out that can address these concerns. So what is the research telling us? Did the pandemic cause subtle changes in development that children will eventually compensate for or did it cause serious developmental delays that may ultimately result in more children meeting criteria for developmental disabilities?
Are the pandemic kids OK? Research on the impact of the pandemic on child development
First, let’s examine the research on the infants born during the pandemic. The largest study that we have on the impact of the pandemic on child development is a meta-analysis (a study that combines data from all previous relevant studies) that included 11,438 infants born during the pandemic and 9,981 infants born before the pandemic. When the data was combined across studies, there were no overall differences in development in the first year of life, meaning there was no increased risk for a developmental disability in the children that lived through the pandemic. However, the infants born during the pandemic did show an increased risk for delayed communication skills. Yet, no differences were found between babies born before versus during the pandemic in terms of motor development, social-emotional development, and problem-solving. It is clear that there is a great deal of variation in the outcomes of children born during the pandemic (meaning some children thrived during the pandemic and some were severely impacted).
The meta-analysis also found that infants who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 in the womb (meaning their mother contracted COVID-19 during pregnancy) showed no overall differences in development and no increased risk for developmental disability. Yet, they did show increased risk for an impairment in fine motor skills. However, since the placenta seems to protect most babies from COVID-19, it is possible that this finding reflects other differences between mothers who were and were not infected by COVID-19, such as being an essential worker during the pandemic.
Research has also examined specific developmental milestones in social communication and found that infants born during the pandemic showed impaired social communication skills at 12 months. Specifically, when compared to 12-month-olds born before the pandemic, fewer 12-month-olds born during the pandemic had spoken their first word, pointed or waved goodbye. However, babies born during the pandemic showed some signs of advanced gross motor development with more babies born during the pandemic crawling at 12 months. No differences were found for other developmental milestones including standing alone, stacking blocks, feeding themselves, responding to their name, and using a pincer grasp.
Another study looked at the duration of the infant’s first year lived during the pandemic and found no relationship between how long they experienced the pandemic and child development (including language and socioemotional development) or maternal mental health or stress at 12 or 24 months. They even found no relationship between disruptive life events related to the pandemic and child development. However, more disruptive life events during the pandemic was associated with more anxiety and depression in mothers.
School-age children were also impacted by the pandemic. A meta-analysis of 42 studies across 15 countries found that school-age children lost about 1/3 of a school year’s learning during the pandemic on average and they have not seemed to recover from these losses even two years later. These learning deficits are particularly significant for children from lower income families. Research also finds that the learning losses seem to be greater in math than reading.
Research finds that adolescents who lived through the pandemic showed not only increased depression and anxiety but also “advanced brain age.” This phenomenon is common in children who have experienced violence, neglect or other traumatic experiences. In other words, the stress of the pandemic may have unnaturally sped up their brain development
Research also found a pattern of worsening mental health and increased behavioral problems during the pandemic across all children 18 years and younger. This was particularly true for families that experienced more hardships during the pandemic.
TRANSLATION: Overall, babies and toddlers did not show significant global developmental delays during the pandemic, yet there is some evidence for delayed social and communication development. The data on babies and toddlers indicates a wide range of variation in outcomes – some children seemed unaffected by the pandemic and some children seemed severely impacted. Older children also showed evidence for learning loss and differences in brain development as a result of the pandemic. Children of all ages showed increased mental health and behavioral problems.
Why did this happen?
There are many possible reasons the COVID-19 pandemic could have negatively impacted children. Some of the most likely explanations include:
- Parent mental health: The COVID-19 pandemic caused financial strain, social isolation, and decreased family support, which in turn increased parental mental health problems. Specifically, research found that anxiety and depression in new mothers was dramatically higher during the pandemic – 61% of new mothers experienced anxiety and 43% of new mothers experienced depression, compared to 14% and 16% of mothers pre-pandemic. Not surprisingly, mothers who experienced more negative events related to the pandemic were more likely to experience mental health issues. Mental health issues in parents can contribute to less sensitive and responsive parenting which then negatively impacts child development.
- Lack of access to health care, child care, and school: The pandemic closed many child care centers and schools, which undoubtedly reduced learning opportunities for children. The pandemic also made it more difficult for parents to access necessary health care and other services such as speech-language therapy, physical therapy, and parent education groups. The loss of any external support for parents may have also negatively impacted child development.
- Job and Income Loss: Job loss and income loss during the pandemic were associated with less positive interactions between parents and children. Women from lower income families also experienced more symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Severe COVID-19 infections and deaths were also more common in lower income and ethnic minority families.
- Lack of routine and structure and quality parent-child time: Children thrive on routine and structure and the pandemic disrupted a lot of family routines for children. Research found that practicing family routines during the pandemic predicted better mental health, even when controlling for income and mother’s depression and anxiety. This disruption of routine often resulted in parents replacing quality parent-child interactions (such as reading) with less quality interactions (such as screen time). Research found that parents who read less to their children and had more passive screen time during lockdown had children who showed impaired language development during this time.
Limitations of this research
It is very important to note that the research from the pandemic may be limited for several reasons. First, most of the data on children’s development during the pandemic is based on parent report. Parents’ reporting of their children may be more negative because they may have a belief that something as extreme as a pandemic would have to be negative for children. It could also be that parents were spending more time with their children during the pandemic which allowed them to notice more developmental problems or be more concerned about their child’s development more generally.
Second, even studies that did not involve parent report may be biased. In these studies, they were comparing children assessed in normal conditions before the pandemic to children assessed during the pandemic with researchers wearing masks, staying behind plexiglass windows, and/or taking other precautionary measures that may have confused or distracted the children enough to result in lower scores during the pandemic. In addition, the people who were willing to come in during a pandemic may be more worried about their children’s development.
Third, the data clearly reveals that there was a great deal of variation in the outcomes for children. Some children flourished during the pandemic and some children experienced delays. We cannot assume that an entire generation of children is delayed.
Finally, the differences found during the pandemic could be a temporary decline and, in a few years, we could see no differences between the two groups. However, it is important that we take action now to correct the developmental course of these children, rather than just assuming children are resilient.
What to do if you are concerned about your child
Children were less likely to see their primary care physician during the pandemic, which likely resulted in fewer referrals to early intervention. It is very important that the children who were “missed” during the pandemic are now identified and referred to early intervention. In order to reverse the impact of the pandemic, we likely need to go above and beyond to help these children and actively work to make up for lost time.
In the United States, early intervention services provide free evaluations for children 0 to 36 months and, if your child meets criteria for a developmental delay or disability, they will provide free services, usually in your home. If your child is over 3 years old, you can request a free evaluation from the public school system. You do not need a referral from your pediatrician but can seek out these services on your own. It can be scary to seek out an evaluation but it is important to remember that, at best, an evaluation will put your mind at rest and, at worst, it will get their child the services that will help them.
Three ways parents can advance development
If you are concerned about your child’s development, you should always seek help from professionals. However, if your child does not meet criteria for services or if you have to wait for an evaluation or services, here are three ways you can help to advance your child’s development:
- Increase the language: Research consistently finds that the more you talk to your child, the more advanced language skills they will develop. In particular, research suggests that you should focus on back-and-forth conversations with your child, even if their response is only a babble or some type of movement. You don’t have to practice language in formal lessons or using flashcards – just work more language into your everyday routines.
- Read to your child: Research suggests that reading to your child is associated with improved language and academic skills. Create a routine in which you read to your child at least once per day. Make sure you are not just reading the words but talking to your child about the book and allowing them to make comments or ask questions.
- Play, play, play: Get on the floor and play with your child whenever you have a chance. Follow their lead in play and allow them to choose the activity and how the play goes. Research finds that this type of child-directed play helps to advance cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.
All Parenting Translator newsletters are reviewed by experts in the topic to make sure that they are as helpful and as accurate for parents as possible. This post was reviewed by Rebecca Berlin, PhD. Berlin received her PhD from the University of Virginia School of Education and has served as a special education teacher, home visitor, child assessor, autism specialist and school administrator. She has conducted research on the teacher-child interactions, as well as play and story based interventions for improving social skills and classroom quality. She currently serves as the Executive Director for the Parenting Translator Foundation.