Mason Sigwart was born as the world around him was shutting down.
His mother, Amanda Sigwart, was rolled into an operating room at Virtua Voorhees Hospital on March 23, 2020, days after a novel coronavirus had begun to shut down businesses. Sigwart felt some tension in the air and avoided listening to local news, but the nurses smiled and told Sigwart everything would be OK.
By the next day, nurses were in face masks and full-body gowns, creating a somber backdrop for a joyful occasion.
The months — years — that followed for the Sigwarts and other families that had a baby at the beginning of the pandemic have been shaped by any parent’s instinctive drive to protect their children from harm, coupled with an unusually fierce determination to not let fear define their introduction to the world.
The 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday is considered the most critical period for neurological, physical, metabolic, and immune-system development. A child’s physical and emotional environment, including access to healthy food, feelings of security, and freedom from stress, lay the foundation for long-term health. For babies born in March 2020, those 1,000 days have just ended — and a majority of those days took place during a pandemic characterized by intense anxiety, financial strain, and isolation.
Early studies suggest the pandemic has contributed to language and social skill delays among some infants. Others suggest babies raised into toddlers under these challenging circumstances are exceptionally observant, curious, independent, and in many cases meeting or exceeding developmental milestones such as walking at an accelerated pace.
The most important factor in how the pandemic affects babies — 3.6 million were born in 2020 in the United States — is how their caretakers have fared.
“The jury is really out on what it means to have been born during the pandemic,” said Philip Fisher, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who has been studying the pandemic’s effect on families. “It’s really risky to make general conclusions because the pandemic has been such an incredibly different set of events depending on where you live, your race, your income level. ... It’s going to take a long time for us to understand this.”
Children’s brains are flexible, and small delays at such a young age might not be meaningful in the long run. Developmental milestones are not deadlines by which a child must learn a new skill but rather a gauge to help doctors track whether a child might need additional support.
“That’s the important thing for all parents of these little ones to understand,” said Wanjikũ F.M. Njoroge, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Young Child Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “No matter how hard and how horrible these past two years have been for them and their families, and indeed globally, that brain is still developing.”
Does COVID cause developmental delays?
About 75% of a person’s brain develops in the first three years of life, Njoroge said, and 90% in the first five years. Infants develop skills that are building blocks for language and mobility, and they begin to understand the emotional capacity of those around them. Even babies, she said, will babble to each other, and pause as if giving each other time to speak.
“That sort of reciprocal interaction, even though it’s completely nonsensical, is to them meaningful,” Njoroge said.
So far, researchers have found parents don’t need to worry about mask-wearing leading to speech delays. Even though infants learn in part by looking at people’s mouths, eyes are often more expressive.
But it’s unclear how pandemic isolation will affect babies born during the pandemic — infants typically recognize only their parents but by age 2 are developing their personality and learning to interact with other kids and adults.
“What the pandemic has done is really disconnected people,” said Ebony White, interim director of the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services Center in North Philadelphia and a professor in the counseling and family therapy department at Drexel University. “I think about the impact of now introducing children to family members and things of that nature and how that’s impacting their attachment.”
Alex-Leigh Flanagan, of Haddon Township, wonders what parts of her 2-year-old daughter Ruby’s personality are innate, and what characteristics were influenced by the pandemic.
Under normal circumstances, Flanagan’s parents or in-laws could have helped out with their two older children, Liam and Cora, who are now 6 and 3, to give Flanagan and her husband, Earl, more time to focus on the baby. Ruby still wasn’t talking much at 15 months, and Flanagan worried it was because she hadn’t spent as much individual time with her as she normally would have. As the pandemic dragged on, Liam started school — virtually — which added to their daily chaos.
“It was outside the realm of juggling,” she said. “We were asked to do the impossible.”
Ruby also experienced sensory processing issues and seemed unable to channel her energy safely — she used to intentionally crash into furniture or the floor — which Flanagan suspects may stem from spending so much time inside their house, with little exposure to stores and playgrounds, the first year of her life.
“I didn’t realize how impactful those little things would be,” she said.
After consulting her pediatrician, Flanagan enrolled Ruby in early intervention therapy in October 2021. Her vocabulary has improved significantly, and she’s learning how to better express herself.
Family stability defines babies’ experience
What could be more damaging than social isolation, experts said, is what young children observe in their parents.
The RAPID-EC project at the University of Oregon, an ongoing survey of families during the pandemic, found that as stress and other hardships among parents increased, so did the number of children with emotional distress.
Researchers found that families with more stressors — such as housing or food insecurity, job losses, having to work in person, lack of savings, and insufficient social support — were more likely to report that their children felt distressed. Across all income levels, Black and Latino families were more likely to experience at least one hardship that could, in turn, affect youngsters’ well-being.
“When parents are highly depressed or extremely stressed, it can change the way they interact with their child. … They may be irritable, they may not spend as much quality time,” said Iheoma U. Iruka, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose research focuses on racial equity and child development. “It’s not just about quantity [of time], it’s about quality.”
The pandemic shut down DaJonna Bruce’s small Southwest Philadelphia home day care around the birth of her daughter, Aubri’Skye, in March 2020. That left only the income from her fiancée Shanell Robinson’s job with the postal service to pay bills, feed their family, and buy a mountain of diapers. It was the most stressful part of the pandemic, Bruce, 28, said.
Meanwhile, for parents who were able to work from home and felt financially stable, pandemic days stuck at home felt almost idyllic in some ways.
Horace Rooney and Aimée Jean-Louis Rooney, both educators in their 40s with adult and adolescent children from prior relationships, didn’t plan on having a baby together, but in 2020 welcomed Grace, who will be 2 in June.
“I think she fought destiny to be here,” Aimée Rooney said. “We were not thinking about having any other kids.”
The couple created a pod with four other West Philadelphia families that had children around the same time. In warmer months, they visited Clark Park and found a haven in a nearby church’s small prayer garden, with wind chimes and a little brook running through it. In winter, they bundled up the infants and hung out on porches.
Grace, they said, seems more advanced than their other children were at the same age, something they attribute to the attention she has received from them and older siblings.
“When there is nothing else to do, you cannot go to the movies, you’re not going to go to every indoor family event,” Aimée Rooney said. “We just spent a lot more time reading to her. I mean a whole lot more time.”
Other parents also saw developmental leaps.
Barely 2 years old, Bruce and Robinson’s daughter, Aubri’Skye, can speak in complete sentences (sometimes) and is learning to use the toilet.
“We communicate with her a lot, we talk to her like she’s 5 or 6 years old,” Bruce said. “That’s really very humbling to just be able to see the types of things you can teach a kid at home.”
Single-parent households reported higher levels of stress and financial hardship, and their children experienced greater emotional distress, compared with multiparent households, according to the University of Oregon survey.
Fajr Gay, 25, struggled in 2020 and 2021 with being a single parent of two young children, but one of the joys of the last two years has been seeing how fast her younger, Aerie, 2, has developed. She has particularly noticed Aerie’s intense curiosity about new places. A recent visit to Chuck E. Cheese ended in tears because Aerie didn’t want to leave.
“She’s very, very advanced for her age,” Gay said. “Every day I learn something new about her.”
Amanda and Charles Sigwart have done their best to focus on the positive that has come from the pandemic.
The usual stream of family and friends dropping by to meet Mason when they brought him home in March 2020 couldn’t happen. Instead, the proud dad stood in the doorway and held him up like Simba on Pride Rock for his visitors to see. They played songs from The Lion King in the background to bring humor to an otherwise bittersweet affair.
“It’s so wild. We were alone,” Amanda Sigwart said. “I try not to let it upset me because I can’t reverse it. Obviously it’s upsetting, it was time wasted.”
It’s so wild. We were alone.
When businesses reopened, the Sigwarts decided they didn’t want to remain isolated out of fear that Mason might get COVID-19 (and he did, twice, with mild symptoms). They started taking him to restaurants and shops, threw him a big first birthday party outside, and an even bigger second birthday party with a race-car theme.
Both working remotely — he’s in banking; she’s in real estate — they saw all Mason’s firsts and spent more time with him than they otherwise would have.
“It stinks because a lot of good things changed in our lives,” she said, “but there’s been so much freedom to it, too.”