Socioemotional Development of Infants and Toddlers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JAMA Pediatr. 2024 Feb 1;178(2):151-159. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.5684.


Importance: Understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children's socioemotional development is critical to plan for ongoing needs in the early intervention and education systems.

Objective: To determine if Ages and Stages Questionnaire, Third Edition (ASQ-3) and Ages and Stages Questionnaire Social-Emotional, Second Edition (ASQ:SE-2) scores changed during the COVID-19 pandemic among families served by a nurse-visiting program.

Design, setting, and participants: This retrospective, cohort study took place from 2015 through 2021 and included 4 cohorts (prepandemic, pandemic 1, pandemic 2, and pandemic 3) with differing pandemic exposure at the time of screening. Analysis was conducted from July 2022 through October 2023. Data from the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a national nurse-visiting program enrolling birthing people during pregnancy and continuing through age 2 years, were used. A total of 60 171 families with a singleton birth at 37 weeks' gestation or longer and at least 1 valid ASQ-3 and/or ASQ:SE-2 screening in the NFP from January 1, 2015, through December 31, 2021, were enrolled.

Exposure: COVID-19 pandemic.

Main outcomes and measures: Outcomes were a positive screening, defined as scores in the refer area on the ASQ-3 at 10 months and 18 months of age and in the ASQ:SE-2 at 12 months and 18 months of age. Multivariable mixed-effects logistic regression models were used to calculate odds ratios (ORs) for positive screening in pandemic cohorts compared with the prepandemic cohort. Covariates included parent age, race and ethnicity, marital status, income, child's biological sex, and multiparity.

Results: Of 60 171 families enrolled, pandemic cohorts had fewer teenagers, were more likely to be married, and were multiparous. Compared with the prepandemic cohort, all pandemic cohorts had higher odds of positive screening on the ASQ-SE at 12 months (pandemic 1: OR, 1.35; 95% CI, 1.09-1.66; pandemic 2: OR, 1.60; 95% CI, 1.30-1.96; and pandemic 3: OR, 1.94; 95% CI, 1.61-2.33) and pandemic 2 and 3 had higher odds of a positive screening at 18 months (pandemic 2: OR, 1.61; 95% CI, 1.29-2.00 and pandemic 3: OR, 1.87; 95% CI, 1.50-2.32). On the ASQ-3, pandemic cohorts 2 and 3 were more likely than the prepandemic cohort to screen positive on the communication subscale at 18 months (pandemic 2: OR, 1.39; 95% CI, 1.17-1.64 and pandemic 3: OR, 1.28; 95% CI, 1.07-1.53).

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the first year of life, was associated with higher odds of positive ASQ:SE-2 screening, even when adjusting for demographics and family risks. These findings suggest that unmeasured community, family, and child factors that changed as a result of the pandemic contributed to delays in young children's socio-emotional development.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Pandemics*
  • Parents
  • Pregnancy
  • Retrospective Studies