Will Pandemic ‘Coronababies’ Live With Long-Term Trauma?

CALLAGHAN O’HARE, REUTERS / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This article was originally published on Nationalgeographic.com.

The collective stress caused by the ongoing pandemic has become so all-encompassing, it has opened up a scientific debate over whether babies born during lockdowns will suffer from poorer health for the rest of their lives. If you’re wondering why that might happen, scientists say you can look no further than the North American Ice Storm of 1998.

For up to six weeks after the storm knocked out power across eastern Ontario and southern Quebec, pregnant women had to grapple with ice-cold temperatures at home—and that left a biological mark on their babies, says University of Calgary radiologist Catherine Lebel. The Project Ice Storm study scanned the brains of 35 boys and 33 girls whose mothers were pregnant during the event to see if the storm had any influence on the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with regulating emotions.

The research found that babies born during the disaster had larger amygdalas a decade later. These enlargements paralleled a greater frequency in aggressive behaviors, particularly in girls. Prenatal stress is thought to influence the early growth of the amygdala, both in humans and rodents, and its size may influence whether someone develops depression, anxiety, or aggression.

Lebel is now leading a long-term study that will monitor pregnant women across Canada on a monthly basis and will follow their infants’ outcomes after birth to see whether isolation due to stay-at-home orders will have a similar impact on babies born during the coronavirus era. “It is foolish to dismiss the prenatal period,” Lebel says.

Lebel and other researchers say the inordinate strain and isolation these women are experiencing may be affecting their fetuses, which, by their reckoning, could lay the foundations for “Generation C” to display a slew of cognitive, mental, emotional, and physical conditions.

In May, Sam Schoenmakers at the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and four other obstetricians, neonatologists, and medical ethicists published an opinion piece in the British Medical Journal that described the “collateral damage” pandemic-born babies might confront. They note that some reports cite higher rates of antisocial personality disorder and shorter lifespans for children born during famines caused by Nazi occupations in the western part of the Netherlands in the 1940s. Likewise, studies on the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy outline changes in temperament in children born to women who were pregnant when the disaster struck; these children were more fearful and sad, as well as less cuddly and pleasure-seeking.

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