Maternal mental health as a mechanism linking pandemic exposure to children’s cognitive and emotional development

Mark Wade, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; Julia Knight, Temerty Faculty of Medicine; Stephen G Matthews, Temery Faculty of Medicine; Cindy-Lee Dennis, Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing; Prakeshkumar Shah, Temerty Faculty of Medicine; Jennifer Jenkins, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; Robert Levitan, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; Rayjean Hung, Dalla Lana School of Public Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in the scope of its impact across multiple sectors. However, even as many Canadian families return to something that resembles normal day-to-day life, there are many unanswered questions about just how impactful the pandemic has been on young children. Many small, geographically limited studies have suggested a negative impact on children’s cognitive and emotional health, yet each of these generally suffers from multiple shortcomings. The Ontario Birth Study (OBS) is the largest epidemiological study in Canada spanning the prenatal and postnatal period with data collected during the pre-pandemic and pandemic period. In the OBS, many children were born and completed assessments before the pandemic began, while others were either born before or during the pandemic and completed assessments during the pandemic. All mothers completed multiple questionnaires related to their own depression, anxiety, and perceived distress prenatally and postnatally. This unique design will be leveraged to determine whether (i) the combination of pre- and postnatal pandemic exposure is more harmful to children than postnatal exposure alone; and (ii) whether increased levels of mothers’ depression, anxiety, and perceived distress (prenatally and/or postnatally) explain differences in children’s cognitive and emotional well-being at 24 and 54 months as a function of pandemic exposure using a combination of parent-report and objective assessments. The findings can be used by parents, educators, clinicians, and policymakers in determining how best to respond to the needs of children and families impacted by the pandemic and in planning for future ecological crises.