Lauren Shuffrey is a developmental neuroscientist researching child development at New York’s Columbia University. She’s an expert in maternal perinatal health, infant neurodevelopment and autism who has published groundbreaking research on the impact of the pandemic on baby brains. She’s also a mom.

However, her extensive training in developmental psychology and her doctorate in biobehavioral sciences in no way prepared her for the extreme challenge of trying to convince her toddler, Maisie, to wear a mask. And, yes, she tried offering a variety of different colors, patterns and designs. There’s nothing like parenting in a pandemic to keep you humble.

“We decided to take a break from trying to get her to wear a mask since she was getting very frustrated with our attempts,” Shuffrey said. “Hopefully, we can try again soon and reshape it as a positive experience.”

Shuffrey recently took some time out to discuss her experience having a baby during the height of the pandemic in New York, what parents should know about the possible rise in developmental delays in its wake and her suggestions on how to cope with this challenging time.

Has it been stressful having a baby during the pandemic?

I think this pandemic has been very challenging for parents, and we have to keep adapting to never-ending changes and challenges. My daughter, Maisie, was born in New York City’s initial Covid peak during March of 2020 and will be turning 2 years old this month. It has definitely been a strange experience raising a child during a global pandemic. At times, we’ve had long periods of social isolation.

However, since vaccines have become available for adults and older children, my daughter is having a more normal childhood experience. She is now participating in several different group activities with other children her age, which has really helped her developmentally.

How does being a neuroscientist influence your parenting?

I think neuroscience and parenting are bidirectional for me. My understanding of developmental neuroscience guides how I understand child developmental processes, and having a toddler reminds me of how complex the developmental processes are that we as scientists try to operationalize through specific tasks or questionnaires.

Your study found that babies born during the pandemic showed developmental delays compared to babies born before the pandemic. How worried should we be?

Our study relied on a commonly used developmental screening tool called the Ages & Stages Questionnaire. This tool is widely used by both researchers and practicing general pediatricians to identify early signs of developmental differences, but it is not a diagnostic assessment.

Our findings do not necessarily indicate that this generation will be impaired later in life. It will be important to continue to monitor the generation of children born during the pandemic to provide support as needed.

Parents should always discuss any concerns about their child’s development with their child’s pediatrician. For children who are experiencing developmental delays, early intervention services from birth to three years of age can drastically improve long-term outcomes.

What should parents try to do differently?

The burden should not fall to parents and educators alone to support children. Parents should continue to engage in activities that support their child’s development such as spending quality one-on-one playtime without electronic distractions. The pandemic has been a difficult time for not only children but for the entire family unit.

What can be done systemically to better support families with children?

Systematic changes such as affordable high-quality child care and universal pre-kindergarten would support families during this difficult time.

What advice do you have for parents who are feeling overwhelmed right now?

Self-care for parents is difficult, but we know that parental mental health affects children. So, to care for our kids, we also need to take care of ourselves as parents too. Social support is a very important factor. Social isolation has been a significant challenge for many individuals during the pandemic. Making time to connect with family and friends as well as making time to unwind from our electronic devices and be present with one another can help parents cope.

When do you think you will have to revisit the mask issue?

We are flying for the first time this summer to visit my husband’s family abroad. So, we will have to drive to Canada and fly from there if we can’t get her to mask by then.

From a developmental perspective, would a bribe be completely out of order?

Since she’s not quite 2 yet, she doesn’t have the receptive language to understand bribery.

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