Perinatal psychological distress during the COVID‑19 pandemic and the effects on infant brain development during the first year of life
The COVID‑19 pandemic has increased anxiety and depression in pregnant individuals, but how will this affect their developing child? Maternal stress during pregnancy and the first year of a child’s life can impact children’s behaviour and mental health for many years. This likely occurs because of changes to brain development, but these mechanisms are not well understood. Through our national Pregnancy during the COVID‑19 Pandemic Study, we have collected online survey data from pregnant individuals during pregnancy and postpartum, including detailed mental health measures. Here, we will brain scan infants born to a subset of these mothers in Calgary, Alberta and London, Ontario. By scanning infants at 3-months and 12-months of age, we can understand how brain development is affected by maternal anxiety and depression. We will also examine if social support, sleep and physical exercise can offset these effects. Once we understand how maternal distress affects the developing brain, we can use this information to help identify the infants who are most affected by maternal distress and importantly, which children may be at risk of developing behavioural or mental health problems. This knowledge can be used immediately to help mitigate the potential prolonged effects of maternal distress during the pandemic by informing families and health care providers who may benefit from early interventions.