The pandemic is leaving its imprint on all of us, but some experts suggest it may be most keenly affecting babies and toddlers.

new study by researchers at five universities found that babies born during the pandemic may have lower IQ scores than those born before it. Babies who came into the world before the coronavirus had a cognitive score hovering around 100, according to this study. But the test scores of babies born during the pandemic fell sharply, to around 78. That’s 22 points lower than what’s considered normal.

“It was shocking,” said lead study author Sean Deoni, associate professor of pediatrics research at Brown University. “The drop from a mean of 100 to a mean of 78 is large. When you think of breastfeeding, for example, we’re usually talking about 5 points’ difference; we expect most children to be between 85-115, with only 16 percent being less than 85.  Almost all of our kiddos born since the pandemic are now at that lower level.”

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are often referred to as the brain’s window of opportunity, experts say, a time of great potential but also great vulnerability. The most explosive growth comes first, with the brain doubling in the first year.

Researchers are concerned that less parental stimulation coupled with a lack of engagement with other children may be partly to blame. This decreased interaction may inhibit the growth of neural connections that drive child development.  However, they are hopeful that the cognitive decline may be reversible if the stimulation increases.

It should be noted that “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Child Cognitive Development” is a preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. Some observers have noted the imprecision of reactions elicited by masked researchers interacting with babies. But given the critical nature of early childhood development, and the chronic nature of the pandemic, experts say the data remains well worth examining.

Effects becoming visible

There is already abundant evidence that the pandemic has impacted children on a variety of fronts, ranging from literacy lags and mental health issues to deepening poverty, all of which can profoundly influence their education.

In this study, researchers from Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University compared childhood cognitive scores from 2020 and 2021 with those from the decade before, roughly 2011-2019. They examined about 700 healthy children aged between 3 months to 3 years, using a system called the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, which evaluates the cognitive and motor development of babies and converts that score into IQ numbers. Children were assessed on key metrics, such as fine and gross motor control, visual reception and language. Babies were evaluated on developmentally appropriate benchmarks, like babbling, crawling and rolling over.

While keenly aware of the upheavals of the pandemic, the researchers said they were nonetheless surprised to find such a steep decline in cognitive ability. They had assumed that babies would be more insulated from disruptions than school-age children, for example.

“Though there has been a lot of talk and speculation by child health and development experts over the past 18 months or so on the effect lockdowns and such would have on kiddos,” said Deoni, a father of two. “People thought it would be primarily limited to school-age children, and really due to lack of schooling, whereas we seem to be saying even the youngest might be impacted.”

While the underlying causes of the lower cognitive scores are still unknown, experts suggest that the pressures of the COVID era may be having a profound impact on babies, their development and the very architecture of the brain. Just as a weak foundation might undermine the strength of a house, experts say, adverse experiences early in life can damage the pillars of the brain.

“Every experience—positive or negative, major or minor—impacts how we see the world and how we develop,” said Heidi M. Feldman, professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine, who was not involved in the Rhode Island study. “When we are young and have accumulated relatively few experiences, each one has a big impact on our thinking and feeling.”

Pandemic stress takes a toll

Even in families where no one contracted COVID, researchers found, the turmoil of the pandemic may have negatively affected child development, particularly during those vital first 1,000 days of life. In that sense, the pandemic might have an outsize impact on infants.

“The brain’s adaptive plasticity,” the study says, is a double-edged sword. “While positive and enriching environments can promote healthy brain development, neglect, insecurity, stress, and lack of stimulation can impair maturing brain systems and disrupt cognitive and behavioral outcomes.”

Among the environmental factors that may have played a role are a decrease of stimulation from parents, a lack of engagement with other children and increased exposure to TV and computers, researchers say. These reduced social interactions may be the culprit. Experts say infants may be learning the wrong lessons just as the foundation of their brain is being laid.

“In this pandemic, the parents are present at home but they are unavailable to their children because of remote work,” said Feldman. “If they cry or flirt or laugh, their parents may not respond as they had expected. That is so confusing to children.”

Deoni doesn’t want to point fingers at parents, admitting that he too has struggled to juggle work and parenting during the pandemic, but he suspects that diminished parental attention is key.

“In this pandemic, the parents are present at home, but they are unavailable to their children because of remote work. If they cry or flirt or laugh, their parents may not respond as they had expected. That is so confusing to children.”

Heidi M. Feldman, professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine

“Parents are stressed and frazzled, and that interaction the child would normally get has decreased substantially,” Deoni said. “I think we’ve all suffered, particularly those who are balancing multiple jobs and child care, in trying to find playtime or reading time, but it’s so important.”

Trauma can shape the way a person looks at the world long after a crisis has passed, experts say, and that influence may be heightened with babies, who are like radar dishes for the emotional states of their parents and caregivers.

“Toxic stress can derail child behavior and brain development, especially for infants and toddlers whose brains are extra sensitive and disproportionately receptive to input,” said Rahil Briggs, national director of HealthySteps, a pediatric care program. “Infant brains are like recording devices, and they pick it all up, the good and the not-so-good.”

Babies are social animals who crave stimulation. While parents often spend endless hours cuddling and cooing at their newborns, the heightened trauma of the pandemic, from fear of disease to economic hardship, may have detracted from that quality bonding time. A sense of serenity and emotional stability has been in short supply since the virus upended society, researchers suggest.

“Infants are inherently competent in their ability to initiate relationships, explore, seek meaning, and learn,” says the study, “but are vulnerable and depend entirely on caregivers for their survival, emotional security, modeling of behaviors, and the nature and rules of the physical and socio-cultural world that they inhabit.”

Families fear for mental health

The trouble is that babies may not be getting enough of the crucial “serve and return”  interactions that help shape brain architecture, experts say. When an infant babbles, gestures or cries, and an attentive adult responds with words, or touch, neural connections are built and reinforced in the child’s brain. This back-and-forth exchange helps build foundational neural connections that drive child development.

While parents are generally hard-wired to put their children first, the pandemic has strained many families. Almost 3 out of 4 California parents with children age 5 and under fear their development will suffer because of the pandemic, one survey found, while 70 percent of parents also worry about their family’s mental health.

“Those with babies and toddlers may be hurting the most due to younger children’s need for intensive caregiving,” Briggs said. “Moms, dads and other caregivers are being asked to hold their fingers in the dam, and it’s threatening to burst. This additional stress on adults impacts their capacity to be attentive and engaged caregivers.”

The long and grueling nature of the pandemic also means that even caregivers with considerable resilience might be showing signs of fraying at this point. School closures, breakthrough infections and vaccine-resistant variants add to the malaise.

“Parents are becoming worn down. Many adults have lost friends or family to COVID. They are grieving,” Feldman said. “Our coping resources are getting used up and are not being moderated by frequent, warm and nurturing social interactions. This situation leaves people raw and unprotected to the relentlessness of their plight.”

Poverty is also one of the aggravating factors here. As with so many issues during the pandemic, low-income children fared the worst in this study. That’s alarming because nearly 1 in 5 babies in America live in poverty, according to a new report from Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization. Babies need stability to thrive, but for families living in poverty, food, clothing, and housing are often hard to come by.

Despite the significant obstacles, the researchers remain hopeful that the data will motivate parents and other caregivers to rise to the challenge of infant and toddler engagement. Providing ample opportunities for play, exercise and social interaction is more important than ever, experts say.

Cognitive decline may be temporary

One bright spot may be that because young children are so deeply influenced by stimuli, experts say, they may be able to rebound quickly from adversity. The hope is that if we can increase the amount of intellectual and physical stimulation they get, from bedtime stories to playground visits, we can boost their brain growth. Any cognitive decline may be temporary.

“I would certainly hope that the gap in cognitive abilities can be remedied and that it doesn’t have long-lasting impacts,” Deoni said. “The kiddos in our study are still 1 to 1.5 years of age, so there’s quite a bit of time through toddlerhood and childhood left to develop. But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing.”

As society takes stock of the impact of the pandemic, the researchers are hoping their results will shape the scope of help children get.

“We can’t be cavalier about this,” Deoni said. “What this means is that we really have to redouble our efforts at ensuring kiddos are able to get out and play as well as spend time with their parents.”

Briggs, for one, believes one of the best ways to help children may be to help their parents. She hopes to raise awareness that stress management is more a necessity than a luxury as the public health crisis drags on.

Overburdened caregivers, she fears, may not have the patience for enough of those crucial “serve and return” exchanges.

“Babies’ interactions with their closest caregivers are so foundational to lifelong learning, health, and well-being,” she said. “When asked what to do for young children during COVID, the answer is always to focus on parental well-being and self-care. If there was another way to ensure young children’s well-being without focusing on their parents’ behavior, I’d definitely shout it from the rooftops because parents have enough on their plates right now.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.