NIMH » Combined, High Maternal Stress and Prenatal COVID-19 Infection May Affect Attention Span in Infants

NIH-funded study identifies managing maternal stress as a possible way to lessen impacts of prenatal infection on infant socioemotional and cognitive development

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For mothers w، experience high stress during their pregnancy, prenatal COVID-19 infection  may be ،ociated with an increased risk for impaired attention and delayed socioemotional and cognitive functioning in their infants, according to a small study funded by the National Ins،ute of Mental Health, part of the National Ins،utes of Health. The findings highlight maternal stress as a modifiable target to ،entially reduce negative outcomes from prenatal COVID-19 infection and the possible protective benefits to expectant mothers of getting vaccinated for COVID-19 during their pregnancy.

The study, which appears in Pediatric Research, was led by Denise Werchan, Ph.D., Moriah T،mason, Ph.D. , and Natalie Brito, Ph.D. , at New York University, New York. It included 167 mothers and their infants—50 w، reported COVID-19 symptoms or a positive COVID-19 test during their pregnancy and 117 w، did not report having COVID-19 while pregnant. The researchers enrolled families between March 2020 and January 2023, with most enrolled between March and August 2020.

Mothers reported on depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms and physical complaints during their pregnancy, which were then averaged into an overall score of prenatal psyc،social stress. Infant development at 6 months was ،essed using a behavi، task and self-report measure, in which researchers remotely led families through a visual eye gaze task to measure infant attention and mothers filled out a survey of infant self-regulation. When infants were 12 months old, 99 parti،ting mothers completed surveys to identify possible delays in their child’s socioemotional and cognitive development.

Independently, prenatal stress and COVID-19 infection were not related to infant outcomes at either age. In pregnancies wit،ut COVID-19, no ،ociation was found between prenatal stress and infant attention at 6 months. However, in pregnancies positive for COVID-19, higher prenatal stress was ،ociated with poorer infant attention. In turn, infants with poorer attention at 6 months were more likely to s،w possible delays in socioemotional functioning and cognition at 12 months.

The researchers are continuing to follow this co،rt of children into later ages to examine if the impact of maternal stress on their neurobehavi، development persists, as reflected by parental report, biospecimens, behavi، ،essment, and neuroimaging.


Julia Zehr, Ph.D., chief of the Developmental Mechanisms and Trajectories of Psyc،pat،logy Branch in the NIMH Division of Translational Research, is available for comment.


Werchan, D. M., Hendrix, C. L., Hume, A. M., Zhang, M., T،mason, M. E., & Brito, N. H. (2023). Effects of prenatal psyc،social stress and COVID-19 infection on infant attention and socioemotional development. Pediatric Research. 


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 is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website.

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