There is still much to learn about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it. Pregnant women are not only vulnerable to the disease, but the babies in their womb can be as well. Researchers are predicting that it may affect fetal brain development like other coronaviruses that cause respiratory illness.
Camille Hoffman, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, said via press release that previous pandemics have resulted in increased levels of mental illness in children. These include schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and attention deficit disorder in children.
However, a new study shows a high level of the nutrient choline may help protect babies in the womb. The higher levels can be achieved by taking dietary supplements similar to folic acid and other prenatal vitamins.
Researchers from the Departments of Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus measured choline levels of pregnant women at 16 weeks. Among the 96 preggos, 43 of them had common respiratory infections early in their pregnancy.
The study then gathered data and analyzed pregnancy choline levels’ effects on the behavior of infants whose mom had contracted a respiratory virus through the Infant Behavior Questionnaire-Revised (IBQ-R), which the mothers filled out when their babies were 3 months old.
According to the study, the IBQ-R questionnaire “assesses their infants’ level of activity (Surgency), their fearfulness and sadness (Negativity), and their ability to maintain attention and bond to their parents and caretakers (Regulation).”
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Typically, a lower IBQ-R Regulation at age 1 can be associated with issues in attention and social behavior issues later on in childhood. It’s also associated with delayed reading readiness at 4 years old, focus and concentration problems, and issues with doing a task well in kids through age 7.
Based on the results, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, the study showed that infants of moms who had a respiratory illness but higher choline levels had better IBQ-R scores compared to babies of mothers who had a viral infection but lower choline levels.
Increased maternal anxiety and depression in the viral-infected mothers, however, did now affect their infants’ IBQ-R Regulation.
“It’s important for the healthcare community, and soon to be mothers, to be aware that a natural nutrient can be taken during pregnancy, just like folic acid and other prenatal vitamins, to protect fetuses and newborns from brain development issues,” Dr. Hoffman said.
The study is small, and the researchers need to do further studies. However, previous studies had shown that pregnant women who consumed twice the amount of food rich in choline gave birth to babies with better brain function.
Choline-rich foods include pasteurized or cooked eggs, red meat, soybeans, chicken breast, potatoes, quinoa, milk, broccoli, fish, peanuts, and peas. (Click here for more choline food sources.) Consult with your doctor before taking any supplements during pregnancy.