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Can Catching COVID During Pregnancy Affect Your Child’s Development? 

A new study says yes.

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There is no closer bond than that between a mother and her child — and this connection begins long before birth. A mother is an entire world for her developing fetus; supplying comfort, warmth, sustenance, and cells. So, it probably comes as no surprise that when a pregnant woman falls ill, there may be long-term impacts on her infant’s health. To provide a few examples: Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common virus, can be passed from mother to fetus and cause vision loss, seizures, or intellectual disabilities. Many types of STDs can be harmful, including Chlamydia, which may lead to preterm labor and low birth weight. Even something as simple as the flu can increase the likelihood of premature labor and birth defects. COVID-19 is the latest infection to be added to this list: It’s known to increase the risk of pregnancy problems such as preterm birth, which can affect children in the long term, and a recent study presented some additional sobering data. 

The Study: How Does COVID-19 During Pregnancy Affect Child Development?

In this study — which was published in JAMA Network Open and supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development — researchers compared data and discovered that babies whose mothers had COVID-19 while pregnant were more likely to be diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders in their first year of life than babies whose mothers did not have COVID-19 during pregnancy.

The researchers determined this by analyzing the electronic health records of 7,466 patients who gave birth between March and September 2020 (before COVID-19 vaccines were available). According to those records, 222 tested positive for COVID-19 while pregnant.

Next, the researchers looked at the first year of health records for the 7,772 babies of those pregnancies (some patients gave birth to multiple children). During their first year alive, babies are expected to hit certain milestones in speech and motor skills; playing games, putting objects in a container, or picking up small pieces of food all indicate a healthy developmental rate. Not every baby hits these milestones at the same time. But if a baby is showing delays, a doctor may diagnose them with a neurodevelopmental disorder, which is then recorded in the electronic health record.

The Study Results

The researchers on this study found that 6 percent of the babies who were exposed to COVID-19 during pregnancy were diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders in their first year of life. The risk of these disorders was highest for the babies of pregnant women who tested positive for COVID-19 during their third and final trimester.

By comparison, only 3 percent of the babies who were not exposed to COVID-19 during pregnancy were diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders. These percentages may seem small — but they suggest a mother who contracted COVID during her pregnancy doubled the likelihood of her baby having a developmental disorder, at least in the cases of those analyzed for the study. 

The study did have its limitations. Because it was observational and not a controlled trial, the researchers could not influence certain factors — like diet, lifestyle, or general health of the women during their pregnancies — which may affect a baby’s brain development. The results are also recognized as preliminary, given the limited duration of follow-up; it’s possible that additional neurodevelopmental effects in these children would become apparent later in life.

Nevertheless, this research isn’t the first indication that a COVID infection can affect a fetus. According to the Mayo Clinic, pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to deliver a baby before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy, otherwise known as a premature birth; premature babies are more likely to be at risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and chronic health issues than full-term infants. Pregnant women with COVID might also have an increased risk of stillbirth or pregnancy loss.

Would vaccination help?

The CDC recommends that everyone six months or older get the COVID vaccine — including those who are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant. Both research and the vaccination of thousands have proven COVID-19 vaccines to be safe and effective for pregnant women and their fetuses. Even better: Vaccination can help pregnant women build antibodies that protect their babies. Research has shown that infants born to mothers who received two doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine — like the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna — might have a lower risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19 infection in their first six months of life.

Keep in mind that these vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 — so a fetus will not be infected if their mother receives the vaccine. In fact, the opposite is true: Continued studies show evidence that vaccinated pregnant women pass their antibodies — or their COVID immunity, so to speak — to their fetuses. There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes birth defects.

The Bottom Line

Although the sample size for this particular study was small, the findings underscore the need for pregnant women to take preventive measures against COVID-19, no matter how tired we all are of worrying about the pandemic. By following health and safety guidelines, pregnant women can lower the risk of health problems for both themselves and their babies. 

In addition to vaccination (and keeping up-to-date on your boosters), you can help protect yourself and your child by: wearing a mask (ideally a KN95 or N95here are some ways to make masking more tolerable), socializing outdoors if the weather allows, avoiding crowded indoor areas, and testing yourself and your loved ones regularly. 

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