A child's exposure to SARS-CoV-2 while in the womb or as a newborn may delay social development and elevate breathing issues, a study revealed.

In the University of Bristol-led study published in the journal eClinicalMedicine, the research team investigated if exposure to COVID-19 during pregnancy or right after birth has a long-term impact on the development and breathing of babies.

"This is a really important study as it is one of the first to document the longer term effects of exposure to COVID-19 during pregnancy or shortly after birth on children's development. It highlights that exposure to the virus during that time might have an impact on children's developing social and emotional skills and on their health and respiratory outcomes, but further research is now needed to determine if these effects might be sustained later in childhood," Samantha Johnson, a study author, said in a news release.

To explore the differences in neurodevelopment, respiratory symptoms, and healthcare usage in early childhood between children with perinatal or antenatal COVID-19 exposure and those without, the team conducted surveys among families looked after in 87 NHS hospitals in England and Wales. There were 96 babies born to mothers in the SARS-CoV-2 exposed group and 243 babies who did not have exposure.

The overall development at two years did not differ between the children in both groups. However, those children who had COVID-19 exposure had a risk of slightly delayed social-emotional development.

The researchers also noted that exposure while in the womb elevates the risk of developing breathing issues in children. When compared with those who did not have COVID-19 exposure during pregnancy, the kids with in-utero exposure required more outpatient consultations and hospitalizations by the age of two.

"We can only say that children with perinatal exposure to SARS-CoV-2 might develop difficulties with social emotional development. We need larger studies and longer-term follow-up to confirm and understand this risk. If parents are concerned about their child's development after exposure to SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy, then they should see their GP," Dr. Ela Chakkarapani, a study lead author, said.

"Children's lung function and health care usage also need to be monitored longer term to identify whether there is improvement as they grow older. These findings inform the health care policy for monitoring children's health with perinatal SARS-CoV-2 infection and safeguarding their health in future pandemics," Dr. Chakkarapani added.