A new study by researchers at five universities found that babies born during the pandemic may have lower IQ scores than those born before it. Babies who came into the world before the coronavirus had a cognitive score hovering around 100, according to this study. But the test scores of babies born during the pandemic fell sharply, to around 78. That’s 22 points lower than what’s considered normal.

“It was shocking,” said lead study author Sean Deoni, associate professor of pediatrics research at Brown University. “The drop from a mean of 100 to a mean of 78 is large. When you think of breastfeeding, for example, we’re usually talking about 5 points’ difference; we expect most children to be between 85-115, with only 16% being less than 85.  Almost all of our kiddos born since the pandemic are now at that lower level.”

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are often referred to as the brain’s window of opportunity, experts say, a time of great potential but also great vulnerability. The most explosive growth comes first, with the brain doubling in the first year.

Researchers are concerned that less parental stimulation coupled with a lack of engagement with other children may be partly to blame. This decreased interaction may inhibit the growth of neural connections that drive child development.  However, they are hopeful that the cognitive decline may be reversible if the stimulation increases.

It should be noted that “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Child Cognitive Development” is a preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. Some observers have noted the imprecision of reactions elicited by masked researchers interacting with babies. But given the critical nature of early childhood development, and the chronic nature of the pandemic, experts say the data remains well worth examining.

There is already abundant evidence that the pandemic has impacted children on a variety of fronts, ranging from literacy lags and mental health issues to deepening poverty, all of which can profoundly influence their education.

In this study, researchers from Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University compared childhood cognitive scores from 2020 and 2021 with those from the decade before, roughly 2011-2019. They examined about 700 healthy children aged between 3 months to 3 years, using a system called the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, which evaluates the cognitive and motor development of babies and converts that score into IQ numbers. Children were assessed on key metrics, such as fine and gross motor control, visual reception and language. Babies were evaluated on developmentally appropriate benchmarks, like babbling, crawling and rolling over.

While keenly aware of the upheavals of the pandemic, the researchers said they were nonetheless surprised to find such a steep decline in cognitive ability. They had assumed that babies would be more insulated from disruptions than school-age children, for example.

“Though there has been a lot of talk and speculation by child health and development experts over the past 18 months or so on the effect lockdowns and such would have on kiddos,” said Deoni, a father of two. “People thought it would be primarily limited to school-age children, and really due to lack of schooling, whereas we seem to be saying even the youngest might be impacted.”

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