Our community asked, and we listened…

Our COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcomes (COMBO) Initiative was born during an extremely stressful time for parents in New York. In 2022, we hosted our first COMBO Playdate: a community event celebrating the resilience of moms who gave birth during the first years of the pandemic. Our first event was an outstanding success, with nearly 300 members of the community in attendance. 

Our Washington Heights community, largely made up of Spanish-speaking and immigrant families, is one that is underserved and underrepresented, so it’s especially important for us to amplify their voices. We asked what means the most to them as their families grow — and they answered! Attendees shared what they enjoyed and wanted more of from last year’s event, and we expanded this year’s Playdate to include more support and fun for the whole family. Here are some of the events we were most excited to share this year, highlighting resources to directly address the needs families expressed to us:

  • CPR AND FIRST AID: Last year, families let us know that they loved the opportunity to learn life-changing skills such as first aid training. So we expanded on that offering to include infant CPR, AED training, and naloxone instruction, ensuring that community members have the education and tools they need to keep their families (especially the little ones) safe. 37 attendees became certified in CPR+AED, and families even had the opportunity to take CPR dummies (adult and infant) and kits home with them, so they can continue to teach their community the skills needed to protect their families.
  • FINE MOTOR SKILLS: Arts and craft was a huge success at our last event, so we added to that offering by incorporating even more developmentally-appropriate activities to help children with their fine motor skills, all while having fun: beading bracelets, building toy planes, coloring, and a ceramics station! We also added a sensory bin station, where occupational therapists helped children become more in tune with sensations and helped parents understand the benefits of this tactile stimulation. 
  • GROSS MOTOR SKILLS: In addition to last year’s popular bubble station, miniature golf, and rubber ducky fishing, the parachute playtime session was the second-highest-reported “favorite activity!” Parents loved that their kids got to be active and play, while being appropriately challenged to work on their gross motor skills. This year, we brought back these beloved activities, and we also added two additional tasks to challenge kids at their developmental level and give parents more tools to promote their children’s gross motor skills: 
  • An obstacle course designed for children ages 3-7. The mission: reunite “Chuck, the COMBO duck” with his family! Led by both the COMBO team and occupational therapists, kids were safely guided by experts who could help them get the most out of this developmental activity while having fun.
  • A station where professional teachers from the Uptown Soccer organization showed children how to pass a ball with their feet and shoot a goal. Many parents were excited to sign their children up for Uptown Soccer’s local after-school program!

Other generous community organization contributions this year included:

  • ACCESS TO ARTS AND CULTURE:
    • Local organization Cool Culture provided families with year-long “family passes” to the city’s best fine art and culture museums (including children’s museums), botanical gardens, and zoos.
    • LiteracyInc, a community-based organization dedicated to ending the literacy crisis in NYC, returned for a popular read-aloud, a Spanish-English singalong, and a puppet show! Together, we gave away over 200 brand new children’s books, and many families signed up for their early education programs. 
  • ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES:
    • Both the Center for Children’s Environmental Health and the Community Education Council’s District 4 President, Rosa Diaz, joined us to answer parents’ questions and provide educational resources.
    • Columbia Medical School’s Black and Latino Student Association came to offer free blood pressure screenings.
  • SUPPORT FOR PARENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING: Local businesses and community organizations including Nido de Esperanza, Doulas en Español, and the NYC Mothership Program (who all serve mothers and parents) shared their programs and expertise with families.

The COMBO Playdate is our way of thanking families for their invaluable contribution to science. It brings the families together with organizations in their community, and both of those groups grew from last year’s event! 300+ families and 50+ volunteers alike enjoyed this year’s games, giveaways, raffle prizes, free family photography, and entertainment. One highlight was the outdoor family-friendly trombone dance party with America’s Got Talent star Jonathan Arons, which had everyone on their feet (and laughing hysterically). And after 2 hours of high-energy fun, everyone had an opportunity to wind down together with guided meditation. 

“COMBO is generating foundational knowledge on the health and wellbeing of pandemic-born infants and their families,” says COMBO Chair Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD. “The Annual Playdate is a way for us to give back to the community that has so generously shared their time, wisdom, and lived experience with us to generate that knowledge.” But this is not a research event, and it isn’t just for families in our study — every family is welcome! We had a wonderful, warm spring Sunday, and as we look to our 2024 Playdate, we’re excited to learn what this year’s families found most confidence-building and empowering!

ABOUT COMBO:

The COMBO initiative was launched at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) in the spring of 2020 to rapidly gather information about the effects of the pandemic on new mothers and their babies. So far, our research shows no significant evidence that a COVID infection in a pregnant mother has developmental effects on her baby. But what we have shown are effects of maternal stress, both during pregnancy and after birth. While we have not had enough mothers with severe infections to gather data on those effects (most of our moms have had mild or asymptomatic courses of COVID), this is still good news! The data indicate that for pregnant individuals, there’s more to worry about worrying than about an infection, especially if they are vaccinated (as there is overwhelming evidence that vaccination is associated with a milder or asymptomatic course of the virus). 

Of course, these are still very early timepoints in development. Data from other infections and stress during pregnancy have been associated with consequences that may not be evident until much later, such as autism (which can be diagnosed at the very earliest between 3-5 years of age); ADHD (which tends to be diagnosed at school age); depression and anxiety disorders (usually emerging in the teen years); and schizophrenia (which doesn’t usually become evident until a person’s twenties). So while our initial results are reassuring, it is vitally important to continue this work into the future. Ongoing funding will be crucial to studying and improving outcomes for families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Donate here to become a part of this groundbreaking science.

OUR SPONSORS

We want to say a heartfelt thank you to each of our sponsors who helped make the Playdate such a success. Your generosity directly supported the many families who came to play, connect, learn, and bring important skills into their homes and to their larger community. 

Mary Ruth’s Organic:  $11,273 in vitamins 

Lesser Evil: $300 in healthy snacks

Columbia Office of Community Service Programs + Office of Government & Community Affairs: >$2,500 in CPR Kits

New York Historical Society: Membership with $160 value

NYC Fire Museum: Membership with $30 value

Salon Soleil: Mani/Pedi Gift Certificate with $25 value 

Lululemon @ Columbus Circle: Styling session experience with complete outfit with $300 value

Children’s Museum of Manhattan: Admission passes with value of $400

Chelas Restaurant: free dinner with $50 value