Based on findings from a thorough evaluation of brain development, Columbia researchers have discovered that children born to mothers who have mild or asymptomatic COVID during pregnancy are normal.
The results build on a smaller study that examined the development of infants born in New York City during the pandemic’s first wave using mother reports. According to that study, there were no differences in the brain development of infants exposed to COVID in utero compared to those who were not.
In order to make the new study COVID-safe, the researchers created a technique for watching newborns remotely and modified a developmental evaluation tool that is generally used in person. (babies were assessed between March 2021 and June 2022). Researchers from Salt Lake City, Utah, Birmingham, Alabama, and New York City examined 407 infants between the ages of 5 and 11 months. In total, approximately one-third of the babies were born to moms who had COVID while they were expecting them.
Each of the participating families received the same collection of baby toys and food items prior to the examination so that the researchers could uniformly monitor and compare the infants’ fine and gross motor skills. The researchers also tested cognitive and linguistic skills. They did not know which babies had been exposed to COVID during pregnancy.
“The idea for our novel method to assess development remotely came from Columbia clinicians who quickly began performing telehealth visits at the start of the pandemic in an effort to continue to deliver high-quality care in safe ways,” says study leader Dani Dumitriu, MD, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“But over time, we also realized that evaluating the babies remotely would allow us to observe how the babies were developing in their home environment, which may actually offer a better idea of how the infants are developing than when we see them in the research lab, where they may be scared or anxious.”
The researchers found that babies whose mothers had mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 at any point during pregnancy were developing similarly to those whose mothers had never had COVID.
“The current study, which used a more rigorous method to evaluate babies born during the pandemic, provides further reassuring evidence that having a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID during pregnancy does not affect brain development in infants,” Dumitriu says. “Additional studies are needed to tell us about the impact of more severe COVID on a developing infant’s brain.”
The paper is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
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