Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, many predicted a “baby boom” would result, thanks to all the idle hours couples were forced to spend at home.
So far, though, the research suggests the opposite may be true: We’re in the early days of a “baby bust.”
According to reporting by the NBCLX news outlet, several states and a few hospital systems that keep track of births saw significant drops in birth rates in December, compared with the same month in 2019. This past December’s birth rates were down 8% in Florida, 5% in Arizona and 7% in Ohio compared with the previous year. (Most states and hospitals contacted either couldn’t provide information or hadn’t shared their December numbers yet.)
NBCLX looked at December birth rates because most stay-at-home orders were instituted in March. The majority of babies conceived in mid-March would be born in late December.
With a few exceptions, hospital systems contacted by the news site reported similar declines. OhioHealth, which delivers babies at 10 hospitals across the state, saw an 11% drop in births over the second half of 2020, compared to the second half of 2019. JPSHealth Network in Texas reported a 13% drop in births from December 2020, compared with December 2019.
Significant declines in birth rates come as no surprise to researchers ― though they stress that the data to fully gauge the number of lowered birth rates won’t be available for a few months.
“The economic fallout, persistent health concerns, uncertainty about the safety and availability of medical care and the closure of schools all combine to make this a very unappealing time for couples to start or expand their family,” said Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.
Will we see a baby boom once the pandemic abates? With fewer singles dating because of lockdowns and the already historically low rates in marriage, researchers have their doubts.
“We certainly anticipate there to be a rebound, but we’re not so sure about an overshoot ― a boom that helps to offset the bust,” Smith-Greenaway said. “The longer this economic and public health crisis persists, the more likely these births aren’t just delayed, but will be averted entirely.”
“The longer this economic and public health crisis persists, the more likely these births aren’t just delayed, but will be averted entirely.”
– Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California
Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, and Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley University in Massachusetts, published a report over the summer predicting the pandemic could result in half a million fewer births in 2021.
The pair updated their estimate in December, projecting the number may be closer to 300,000, but they remain convinced the virus will lead to a sizable reduction in children born in 2021.
“As soon as the stories started coming out last spring about a potential baby boom, Phil and I discussed how those predictions were surely wrong, and how what we should expect to see instead was a sizable baby bust,” Kearney told HuffPost.
According to Kearney and Levine, the “baby boom” speculation is rooted in a long-standing myth that birth rates spike after crises or events that force the population to stay home (say, a blizzard or a major electricity blackout.)
But the researchers say the theory doesn’t tend to hold up to statistical examination ― and the COVID-19 crisis is obviously far more disruptive and longer-lasting than those two examples.
It makes more sense to draw parallels to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which led to a large decline in birth rates.
“We’re not surprised to see a decline in births this time around,” Kearney said. “It’s what economic reasoning, data, and evidence would have predicted.”
Googling habits support these estimates. Searches for pregnancy-related terms like “ultrasound” “ClearBlue” pregnancy test and “morning sickness” all fell in 2020, according to one study.
Here’s why the so-called “baby bust” matters.
All of this could spell trouble down the line. Birth rates were sinking to a record low, even before the COVID-19 crisis. As Levine recently told Insider, fewer workers in the labor force could have a dire impact on our Social Security system, since it’s dependent and financed through tax contributions of new employees.
“At this point, 300,000 fewer births in one year, one time, isn’t really that big of a deal for the broader economy and society as a whole,” Levine said. “But you start finding yourself down close to a million births a year, for several years, so those trends continue, and that’s going to have important implications for the country going forward.”
A similar study shows that European women are also putting family planning on the back burner because of the pandemic. Even in New Zealand, a country that has come out of the pandemic relatively unscathed, birth rates are declining. (Data collected by that nation’s government found the birth rate for those of childbearing age has fallen to a record low of 1.63 per woman — far below the 2.1 needed to replace population numbers.)
Low birth rates and concerns over public pension systems have driven countries like France to offer young couples financial incentives to have children, including subsidized daycare and expanded parental leave for mothers and fathers.
Economic, child care and health concerns weigh heavily on couples.
For those who had every intention to get pregnant last year, the decision to wait was a heavy one.
Randali de Santos, a mom of one, in Portland, Oregon, said she and her husband had plans to conceive again around the winter of 2020. As the pandemic stretched out into the spring, they decided to hold off. Now the plan is to wait until they’re both vaccinated, but also to wait until their parents get the vaccination as well.
“Even before news of the vaccine, we held off because we were worried about having to have a child without the additional help and backup of my mom, who lives in Los Angeles,” de Santos said. She had a C-section delivery the first time, and was concerned about the recovery process involved with another one without her mom by her side.
At times de Santos wishes she had a new baby at home, especially since she’s not currently working. When the COVID crisis worsened, she left her job to be able to take care of her two-year-old daughter who she’d pulled out of daycare.
“In some ways, the pandemic makes it more enticing to have a second child ― a friend for our daughter, ample time at home for both parents, a built-in excuse to not entertain friends and family ― but it also makes it difficult for people like us that don’t have family nearby who can help with child care or preparing for a newborn,” she said.
De Santos, like many other parents, has concerns about a vaccine’s effect on a baby in utero and the chance of getting COVID-19 while pregnant. (A new study out of Washington state found that pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalized for the disease than other females and that the mortality rate among them was more than 13 times higher than those of similar ages who were not pregnant.)
As for vaccines, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend pregnant people be offered the shots, though the demographic wasn’t included in clinical trials on the two COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S.
“There is no suspicion that the vaccine should be bad for pregnant women,” Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale University School of Medicine, previously told HuffPost. “But we just do not have the information.”
Still, some would-be parents are waiting until more is known about the vaccines. Eliana Meyer of Denver, Colorado, is one of them.
“Since there’s no current research on the possible effects the vaccine has on pregnant women and babies, my husband and I felt it was a safer option for us to wait, rather than possibly risking anything happening to me or a baby if I got the vaccine while pregnant,” Meyer told HuffPost.
Meyer and her husband both work in the administrative side of health care, so they hope the wait will be short. “Ultimately, this is pushing our timeline out by at least a few months, but we both feel like it’s worth it,” she said.
“This is a multifaceted crisis that is really touching individuals’ lives in such distinct ways.”
Mary Kim, a mom of three in Nashville, Tennessee, said she and her husband were ready to have their fourth child last year, but the stress of the pandemic sidelined those plans.
Her father-in-law died from COVID-19 early on in the pandemic. For a time, she and her husband were working from home with three kids under the age of five. (Now she’s back in the office, which comes with its own work-life balance stress.)
“I turned 38 last year, so it’s ticking clock and all that, but my husband wanted to put it on the back burner,” Kim told HuffPost. “He was still traumatized from everything.”
As matters turned out, Kim got her first vaccine last month and then found out she was pregnant. She’s getting her second dose at the end of this week.
“It was a shock, finding out,” she said. “My main concern at the moment is having gotten the first dose vaccine without knowing, which is probably for the best, because had I known, I wouldn’t have been able to help but to be hesitant” about getting the shot.
Kim’s experience speaks to the other side of this conversation: Unplanned pregnancies will happen, especially amid the pandemic, according to Smith-Greenaway.
While social distancing and lockdowns mean that fewer people are having casual sex, the same restrictions have meant that hundreds of thousands of women have struggled to access birth control, which is likely to result in unplanned pregnancies. (In a typical year, roughly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.)
And of course, plenty of couples have gone ahead with their pregnancy plans, along with resuming fertility treatments that many put on hold (or were forced to put on hold) earlier on in the crisis.
“For some share of the population this is the right time to have a child,” Smith-Greenway said. “This is a multifaceted crisis that is really touching individuals’ lives in such distinct ways.”