Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the big questions experts have been trying to answer is whether—and how—prenatal COVID-19 exposure may affect infants.
“Within the last several years, research has shown that experiencing depression or anxiety while pregnant can alter infant brain development—and we know the pandemic has led to an increase in anxiety and depression,” says Daniel Gisslen, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health. “We also know that prenatal exposure to certain viruses can affect infant neurodevelopment, so the question has been whether prenatal COVID-19 infection can do the same.”
While more research is needed, preliminary studies are starting to give us answers. Here’s what the data says so far—and why we don’t need to panic yet.
Prenatal COVID-19 Infection & Infant Brain Development
Contracting the Zika virus while pregnant can significantly affect an infant’s brain. Prenatal COVID-19 infection doesn’t seem to cause extensive brain alterations, but in some babies, it may cause subtle alterations.
A Spanish study of 24 women and their children (half of whom contracted COVID-19 while pregnant) showed that, at six weeks old, babies who were born to mothers who had contracted COVID-19 were more likely to respond somewhat differently to being held and cuddled. Whether prenatal infection contributes to differences in motor development and language skills remains to be seen as the children grow.
It's suspected that contracting COVID-19 before week 20 of gestation may raise the risk of experiencing these subtle brain alterations. However, more research is required to understand the full extent and implication of prenatal COVID-19 exposure.
“I think the takeaway here is that prenatal effects of COVID-19 seem to be real but subtle—and of unknown significance—in a very small sample size,” says Dr. Gisslen. “Expanding and following this group through preschool (at least) should provide some clarity.”
Prenatal Anxiety & Infant Brain Development
In a recent study, MRI brain scans of infants born during the COVID-19 pandemic—whose mothers experienced depression and anxiety—showed differences in the limbic and frontal regions of the brain.
“The limbic region of the brain is responsible for emotional, impulsive responses, while the frontal region is the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain,” says Jannel Phillips, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health. “Alterations in these regions of the brain may lead to a higher risk of behavioral health conditions in children.”
It’s not entirely known why prenatal anxiety can affect a child’s neurodevelopment, though it’s thought that the mother’s rising cortisol hormones may impact the baby. We also know that, in general, toxic stress can have negative outcomes on infants and children. “At some point in our lives, I’m sure we’ve all seen how toxic stress can affect everyone who is exposed to it,” says Dr. Gisslen.
Counteracting Prenatal Anxiety
Whether it’s the pandemic, you’re a new mom-to-be, you’re juggling responsibilities—or there’s anything else going on in your life—you’ll likely experience stress during your pregnancy. So what can you do about it? After all, worrying about becoming stressed could just make you more anxious.
“There’s one important factor this study found: that getting enough sleep and social support can mitigate the perinatal effects on the baby,” says Dr. Gisslen. “Social support is hugely important. We expect a lot of our mothers—I don’t think it’s fair. We should listen to them and provide them with the level of support they need.
“If you’re a mother or a mom-to-be, know that it’s okay to get your rest. And make sure your babies get sleep as well because that’s really important for growth and development. One of best ways to take care of babies is by making sure we’re taking care of mothers as well.”
To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936. To find a neuropsychologist, visit henryford.com/services/behavioral-health/neuropsychology.
Daniel Gisslen, M.D., is a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center--Southfield.
Dr. Jannel Phillips is a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford’s Behavioral Health clinic at One Ford Place in Detroit, Henry Ford Medical Center – Hamtramck and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.