Drop in Infant IQ Scores

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School-based Psychologist

Lower IQ (intelligence quotient) scores have been found of babies who were born during COVID-19 when compared to infants born prior to January 2020. The results are based upon data analyzed of 644 babies born in 2018, 2019, and 2020, in Rhode Island. What impact has COVID-19 had on fetal cells during the embryonic period when the baby’s major structures and systems develop?

It is not quite certain whether the results of this research is generalizable across all infants born during the same time period. It is not yet irrefutable that these findings can be replicated in other studies. Adding further doubt too, is that the results of this very small study have yet to be peer reviewed

Even so, it does raise a few issues. Namely, the question of nurture (the societal environment) versus nature (biological, genetic and physiological). Parents, school and child psychologists, therapists and pediatricians have sought to address the fundamental answer to this question with varied outcomes.  

Nature. Theorists who argue that genes are the primary source of intelligence point to these findings.

1. Researchers determined that there are at least 22 specific genes associated with intelligence. This information was discovered when the genomic sequences of 78,000 people were analyzed.

2. In a study utilizing cross comparison IQ testing of adult identical and fraternal twins, it was realized that genetics and/or heritable factors  can be responsible for around 57 to upwards of 80 percent of one’s cognitive functioning  abilities (intelligence quotient).

3. Conservative estimates, on the other hand, as reported upon in the Scientific American Mind estimates that genes “account for about half of all differences in intelligence among people, so half is not caused by genetic difference, which provides strong support for the importance of environmental factors.” 

4. Genetic imprints, notwithstanding, “other biological factors such as maternal age, prenatal exposure to harmful substances and prenatal malnutrition may also influence intelligence.” (See Scientific American Mind).

Nurture. In contrast, to the above, theorists featured in Very Well Mind support the argument that nature is the main source of intelligence. They have found these data points most intriguing.

1. Identical twins raised in separate households experience higher levels of difference (variances) than those who were raised together in the same household.

2. School attendance has an impact of IQ scores.

3. Children who were breastfed for one year or more had higher IQ scores at that age of 30 (about 3.7 points).

4. First born children tend to have higher IQs that their younger siblings due to increase attention and, higher parent expectations.

Is this all of the relevant data we need to answer this age old question? By now, you are probably just as perplexed as other parents, child and school psychologists, pediatricians, and therapists. There is another alternative.  To assuage the tension, two researchers  introduced a new approach.  This research was reported upon by the Brookings Institute.

Flynn and Dickens. Researchers James R. Flynn and William T. Dickens applied the Arthur Jensen Model of cognitive functioning to present a theory demonstrating that “kindship [twin studies] hide or mask the potency of environmental influences on IQ. Therefore, they do not really demonstrate the impossibility of an environmental explanation of massive gains over time.” In light of COVID-19 and the detrimental societal factors associated with the pandemic, if I may, I’d like to meekly include “massive losses over time.”

The model presented by Flynn and Dickens posit that nurture and nature work collaboratively through ‘reciprocal causation.’ The researchers used the example of an above average height individual, due to nature who astutely uses his physical advantage to construct an environment (nurture) where his height will be most advantageous (financial gain, social recognition and reward). Does he select to hone athletic skills in a sport that considers the characteristic trait of above average height an advantage or a weakness?

Unlike basketball for instance, in “bodybuilding, height is often considered a disadvantage due to the fact that smaller bodies have a shorter range of motion in order to lift weights. Smaller bodies also tend to look more filled out compared to taller builds in the same weight class.” Please see Wikki for additional information.  

In this example, height will be advantageous for basketball pursuits and disadvantageous for the sport of bodybuilding. And thusly, he would make the rational choice to construct an environment whereby he could train his focus on building upon his genetic advantage (his height).

Flynn and Dickens argue that in this manner, the individual will consciously and subconsciously work to:

(1) upgrade his environment,

(2) increase the amount of time basketball is played and practiced, and

(3) enhance the level of competitors for whom he plays against (other above average height players versus those who are short and/or overweight).

They theorize that in so doing, he steadily and progressively improves his environment through play, practice and competition leading to an

(4) upgrade in skill, which motivates him to

(5) accept opportunities that lead to additional upgrades in his environment (playing on a school team, receiving coaching, and playing in district and/or state leagues).


So while the jury is still in deliberation and the verdict is not out yet, prudent new parents and parents of toddlers, adolescents, teens, and young adults should take heed. In collaboration with the environment (nurture) for which we find ourselves or make for ourselves; we can choose to build upon and/or dismantle the gifts (nature) afforded to us.

It is truly our choice alone.

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Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA http://www.ishareknowledge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com