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Studies have reported mixed findings regarding the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on pregnant women and birth outcomes. This study used a quasi-experimental design to account for potential confounding by sociodemographic characteristics.
Data were drawn from 16 prenatal cohorts participating in the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program. Women exposed to the pandemic (delivered between 12 March 2020 and 30 May 2021) (n = 501) were propensity-score matched on maternal age, race and ethnicity, and child assigned sex at birth with 501 women who delivered before 11 March 2020. Participants reported on perceived stress, depressive symptoms, sedentary behavior, and emotional support during pregnancy. Infant gestational age (GA) at birth and birthweight were gathered from medical record abstraction or maternal report.
After adjusting for propensity matching and covariates (maternal education, public assistance, employment status, prepregnancy body mass index), results showed a small effect of pandemic exposure on shorter GA at birth, but no effect on birthweight adjusted for GA. Women who were pregnant during the pandemic reported higher levels of prenatal stress and depressive symptoms, but neither mediated the association between pandemic exposure and GA. Sedentary behavior and emotional support were each associated with prenatal stress and depressive symptoms in opposite directions, but no moderation effects were revealed.
There was no strong evidence for an association between pandemic exposure and adverse birth outcomes. Furthermore, results highlight the importance of reducing maternal sedentary behavior and encouraging emotional support for optimizing maternal health regardless of pandemic conditions.
High-quality evidence from prospective longitudinal studies in humans is essential to testing hypotheses related to the developmental origins of health and disease. In this paper, the authors draw upon their own experiences leading birth cohorts with longitudinal follow-up into adulthood to describe specific challenges and lessons learned. Challenges are substantial and grow over time. Long-term funding is essential for study operations and critical to retaining study staff, who develop relationships with participants and hold important institutional knowledge and technical skill sets. To maintain contact, we recommend that cohorts apply multiple strategies for tracking and obtain as much high-quality contact information as possible before the child’s 18th birthday. To maximize engagement, we suggest that cohorts offer flexibility in visit timing, length, location, frequency, and type. Data collection may entail multiple modalities, even at a single collection timepoint, including measures that are self-reported, research-measured, and administrative with a mix of remote and in-person collection. Many topics highly relevant for adolescent and young adult health and well-being are considered to be private in nature, and their assessment requires sensitivity. To motivate ongoing participation, cohorts must work to understand participant barriers and motivators, share scientific findings, and provide appropriate compensation for participation. It is essential for cohorts to strive for broad representation including individuals from higher risk populations, not only among the participants but also the staff. Successful longitudinal follow-up of a study population ultimately requires flexibility, adaptability, appropriate incentives, and opportunities for feedback from participants.
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