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Babies born during the pandemic may be slower to talk, but experts say parents shouldn't be worried

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On the east side of Bloomington, Molly McDonald unfurls yoga mats and shows what a child development class with new and expecting parents looks like at her business, The Cocuun.

A preliminary study from Columbia University says children born during the pandemic are developing motor and social skills more slowly than children born before the pandemic.

McDonald demonstrates how she guides classes for new parents with their children.
Devan Ridgway
McDonald demonstrates how she guides classes for new parents with their children.

The delays in development reported by parents were not connected to if a child was exposed to COVID-19 but just to being born during the height of the pandemic.

Previously a research specialist in developmental psychology,McDonald teaches courses that help parents interact with their infants.

She said that while developmental concerns are legitimate, the early days of parenthood are isolating under normal circumstances. Tacking on the stress of navigating COVID-19 guidelines and access to healthcare could’ve had detrimental effects for parents and infants.

“In most cases, [parents] were going into a hospital that is filled with people who are ill, with COVID-19," she said. "You know, the scariest place to be is where they have to bring their baby into the world. So there were unbearable amounts of pressure on new parents.”

She hopes The Cocuun helps new parents access a community and decrease stress.

Read More: Talking Parents

Anna Branam had two children during the pandemic, one in 2019 and one in 2022. She attends and teaches classes at The Cocuun. She’s worried about her children’s safety and connection to community.

“I'm okay, if they're known with a speech impediment, or if it takes him six months longer to catch up developmentally," Branam said. "But I do want them to be healthy and to be known.”

Because of the pandemic, Branam’s children haven’t had as much interaction with their grandparents or extended family as she wants.

“We spent so much time in isolation where we couldn't see friends, we couldn't see family. And there's a lot of grief as a parent, when you've spent 10 months creating this human and there's no one to share them with.”

Because infants weren’t meeting as many people, Professor of early childhood education at IU, Mary Benson McMullen said seeing some delays in development during COVID make sense.

She added facial expression is key for infants to pick up on emotional queues, and masks could’ve been an inhibitor.

But she also said it’s hard to tell how much effect a delay at 6 months will have long term.

Read More: The Safety Of Daycares During A Pandemic

The Columbia study reporting delays in development used feedback reports provided by mothers, which McMullen said might say more about the stress and anxiety new parents are facing. The national library of medicine reports increased symptoms of stress and anxiety among new parents since 2019.

“So if your sense of security and safety is shaken, or you're preoccupied by [developmental benchmarks], in terms of your mental capacity and your emotional capacity, your ability to care for your child or yourself might be impacted.” 

McMullen said if parents are isolated and anxious about their parenting, they might be more likely to perceive their child’s behavior as different or delayed. Her concern was a limitation mentioned in the study.

Read More: Early Learning Nonprofit Opens Statewide Competition To Address ‘Childcare Deserts’

“There is a great degree a high degree of normal behavior in that first year, first three years," she said. "I would say to [parents] not to be too concerned, as they look at the benchmark tables of what your child to should do.”

Branam said attending and starting to teach classes at The Cocuun has helped her work through what she went through as a parent during the pandemic.

The Cocuun hosts a variety of health and wellness services, including parent/child classes like 'Body, Mind and Baby.'
The Cocuun hosts a variety of health and wellness services, including parent/child classes like 'Body, Mind and Baby.'

"I love holding space for women who are postpartum and letting them know that they're seen and that their baby is seen since it's something that I didn't get.”

She said parents might be grieving right now, whether that be through worry about their children’s development or their baby missing out on moments of in-person love and normalcy.

McDonald said if people can’t access the Cocuun in-person, she runs the Three Journeys Online Community for Parents. She listed other resources for parents seeking community: Tandem Birth and Postpartum House, La Leche League, and Milk Matters Breastfeeding virtual meetings.