‘Did COVID-19 Precautions Hurt My Young Kid’s Cognitive and Emotional Growth?’

A psychiatry resident’s take on the long wait for vaccines for those under 5.

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child playing with wooden blocks
Some research suggests that kids born during the pandemic may experience developmental delays — but that doesn’t mean parents should panic.
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A couple of months ago, my partner and I took our then 14-month-old son into a bookstore café for the first time.

The place was packed with unmasked customers, and we waited anxiously for our order, N-95s tethered to our faces.

Our toddler, on the other hand, was quite thrilled to roam a new indoor space amid new people to run around.

Limited mostly to outdoor social gatherings for much of the pandemic, he squealed while teetering by strangers’ legs and pulling at wrapping paper tubes and picture books of trucks. My partner and I nervously hovered over his newfound explorations, but we also felt pangs of joy at these novel opportunities for socialization.

We took this detour from our usual pandemic-parenting playbook (the theme was cautious) to take advantage of fewer COVID-19 cases during the early spring. But as counts started going up just weeks later, our precautions did, too.

As two physicians in training, my partner and I have been in constant fear of bringing COVID-19 home and infecting our son — a scare we experienced when I contracted the virus during my partner’s third trimester. While we worry primarily about the health consequences of him catching the virus, the threat of day-care closures and missed work also drive our safety practices.

Though our son hasn’t caught the virus to this point, we both have stayed home from work with him while awaiting PCR tests or symptoms to resolve — an all too common national occurrence that more drastically affects low-income households.

Like many fellow COVID-era parents of children under 5 years old, we have had a lot of concern over the fact that our children have been ineligible for a vaccine until very recently. Our son is among 19 million kids under 5 living in the United States (according to Kids Count Data Book).

Thankfully, after many months of delayed promises and repeated disappointments, vaccinations for this age group were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in mid-June.

My partner and I were among the many parents racing online to schedule our son for an appointment as soon as they became available. Less than a week after the vaccine was available for his age group, he finally got his first shot — more than seven months after 5- to 11-year-olds became eligible, more than a year after vaccines were approved for 12-year-olds and up, and one-and-a-half years after they became first available for adults in the United States.

While we are grateful that our child finally has some level of immunity against the virus, the time it took to get here — his whole life — feels alarming to my partner and I. We wonder how our efforts to continuously protect him, his relative social isolation in the pandemic era, and the never-ending anxieties wrought by COVID vigilance have hurt our son’s cognitive development during this impressionable early period.

Some Research Suggests Yes, Kids Born During COVID-19 May Be Developmentally Behind

As a doctor training in psychiatry, I am constantly reminded of the pandemic’s disastrous impact on our children’s mental health. Earlier this year, pediatricians reviewed some of the evidence revealing the extent of the damage in an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics.

Kids in their early years are in the throes of intense neurobiological changes that shape the rest of their lives, research has shown.

During this COVID-19 era, I question: What do we not yet know about the impact of the pandemic on our youngest children’s development?

While the data continues to grow and change over time, the initial results are distressing.

One study investigated whether a mother’s exposure to COVID-19 during pregnancy affected their child’s development later on. It did not. But compared with kids born before the start of the pandemic, children born between March and December of 2020 scored lower on tests that measured gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and personal-social skills at 6 months old, suggesting that there were neurodevelopmental differences for babies born during the pandemic.

Preliminary findings from another study have reiterated some of these trends, showing significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance for children born during the pandemic, compared with children born before it. Another paper found poorer social and emotional development in infants born to mothers experiencing perinatal emotional distress related to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, other data is encouraging, suggesting that these cognitive delays are minimal and short-lived. And interventional research highlights the positive benefits of quality group day care to mitigate developmental lags, especially for low-income children.

But it’s perhaps not encouraging enough for parents like my partner and I, who want to see no disadvantages for our child. Both the research literature and personal stories have echoed our fears about how our stress about COVID-19 may be affecting our child’s development.

And yet, it’s difficult to temper intense emotions in the moment when, say, some maskless passerby coughs right in front of your child, or when you live in a multifamily house and the other family refuses to abide by any precautions.

The chronic but less apocalyptic stresses also build up.

Every time I come home from the hospital, I resist the parental ache to pick up my son scampering to greet me. Instead, I hurry toward a sink to wash myself of any potential pathogens before holding him.

Though impossible to know, the accumulation of those precious wasted seconds feels like a series of tiny insults to my child, which I can’t explain or take back. I know of other essential workers constantly exposed to COVID-19 who feel similarly.

4 Ways We Are Letting Go of Some of Our COVID-Era Worries

The good news is that the vaccine’s authorization for kids my son’s age has allowed some of my former stress to slowly melt.

And I am likely not alone. One paper published this spring found that children’s distress levels dropped after mass vaccine campaigns for adults began rolling out. One would hope that the inverse relationship would also take hold, and that parents’ distress levels will ease now that most children in the United States are eligible for the shots.

At this inflection point of COVID, our family is cautiously optimistic. Finally being able to get our kid the jab feels like a step toward the normalcy that the rest of the country has embraced for months (while many of us felt left behind).

Here’s what we’re doing to try to not let COVID concerns get in the way of getting back to what we’ve missed:

1. Venture Out When It Feels Safe

For much of his early life, our son’s primary concept of “inside” was the third floor of the multifamily house we lived in. For months, our only outings consisted of walks around the neighborhood. When the first omicron wave subsided earlier this year, we took our son to the public library, which he loved. When cases climbed again, we stopped public indoor activities completely and opted for outdoor spaces like the beach. Zoos will be next. When he’s fully vaccinated, we’re heading back to the library for more books.

2. Be Choosy With When and Whom You Take More Risks Around

Soon after our son’s birth, before the time of accessible COVID-19 tests, we were strict with anyone who came to see him. No unmasked time with grandparents unless they were PCR-negative. Now, with antigen tests more easily available, unfettered time with his extended family has been huge for his emotional development. But we’re choosy with our indoor time, including for ourselves. Citing my son’s vaccination status, I often forgo unmasked indoor events with friends and colleagues. One exception we made was a wedding in a large airy barn with an open door allowing for circulation. We were nervous, but fortunately none of us got COVID. Instead, our son loved running around a dance floor in a bowtie and suspenders. A lot of the other guests enjoyed that sight as well.

3. Spend Time With Others in Your Situation

We are lucky that we can afford a day care that prioritizes our kid’s development. We feel his exposure to other children and caretakers has added a core piece to his young personality.

If group day care isn’t an option, having playdates with other families with young kids may be the next best thing. The few times we have done this have been amazing for both the toddlers learning to play in parallel with one another and for their parents, who are reminded that they aren’t alone in navigating these tense times. There are only so many people who understand the nuances of confirming a diaper blowout before placing your screaming child on a changing table.

4. Remember to Also Care for Yourself

Whether individually through regular exercise, therapy, meditation, or massages, take time for yourself. Plan a date night at an outdoor restaurant. Learning how to parent is hard. Doing so in a pandemic is unenviable. Being able to recharge is essential, and it only makes you a better caregiver. And, when you can, celebrate the small victories, the birthdays, the holidays. Luckily for dads like me, a vaccine for my son was approved just in time for Father’s Day. Every day since has been a party.

Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.