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Pandemic Babies: Who Became Pregnant and Who Stopped Trying

COVID-19 has many rethinking plans to start a family or have more children.

Key points

  • A third of women who were thinking about becoming pregnant during the pandemic abandoned the idea, and half who were actively trying stopped.
  • Pregnancy intentions changed worldwide—in the U.S., U.K., China, France, Italy, and Germany.
  • “Older” women tended to stick to their plans to have a baby.
Wild One/Pixabay
Source: Wild One/Pixabay

About a month into the pandemic when lockdowns began to take hold, I asked if we could expect more divorces or more babies after the COVID-19 outbreak. I predicted that since women were waiting longer to start families and having fewer kids, it seems unlikely the pandemic would increase the birth rate.

Now a study of a diverse group of New York City mothers provides insight into what’s actually happened and a partial answer to my question. NYU Grossman School of Medicine surveyed 1,179 women who were planning to become pregnant again. The mean age of the mothers was 32 and each had one child under the age of 3-and-a-half. The aim of the study, conducted during the four-month period between April and August of 2020 when New York was the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., was to determine if their pregnancy intentions had changed since the pandemic started. The questionnaire was available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin.

How Pregnancy Intentions Changed

Almost half of the women stopped actively trying to become pregnant, and over a third who were thinking about becoming pregnant in the next six to 12 months abandoned the idea. The women cited increased stress and financial insecurity as reasons for their decision. Online schooling and insufficient childcare also contributed to delaying or scaling back the number of children desired, especially among lower-income Black and Hispanic women.

Among those who stopped trying to become pregnant, less than half did not expect to try once the pandemic ended. The study’s authors predicted abandonment of pregnancy plans due to the pandemic will likely contribute to falling birth rates.

At the end of 2020, The Brookings Institute drew an almost identical conclusion forecasting 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021. Taking into consideration economic stability and job security, the Guttmacher Institute updated their survey from June 2020 and got essentially the same result as the New York City investigation: About a third of women, or 34 percent, said they wanted to get pregnant later or have fewer children because of the pandemic.

Studies conducted in other countries during roughly the same period drew similar conclusions. In Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and the U.K., COVID-19 caused people to revise, scale back, or take a step back in their fertility plans. In Germany and France, fertility plans changed moderately, with many people still planning or postponing their decision to have a child.

In Italy, a country with an increased number of COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic, a study looked at the desire for parenthood among men and women of childbearing age. Among couples who had planned to have a child before the pandemic, 37 percent abandoned the idea because of concerns about the economy and COVID-19’s possible effects on pregnancy.

Similarly, research in Shanghai found three in 10 couples of childbearing age who originally indicated that they intended to become pregnant changed their minds after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Not Everyone Changed Their Mind

Notably, “older” women held fast to their pregnancy intentions more frequently. This came through in the Italian and the New York City studies.

Researchers conducting the New York City study found high-income, highly educated, and non-Hispanic white individuals were more likely to consider becoming pregnant. “This finding parallels other evidence suggesting that those with financial security have continued to actively pursue pregnancy despite the pandemic, most obviously in the area of assisted reproduction,” the study’s authors reported.

For women concerned about their biological clocks, waiting could mean not being able to become pregnant using their own eggs. In the U.S., a nationwide fertility clinic shutdown only compounded problems.

A petition to reopen the clinics sent to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine emphasized: “Fertility treatment is both necessary and time-sensitive.” The petition suggested establishing more reasonable limits on fertility treatment during the pandemic like guidelines put forth by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

Pandemic-related declines in pregnancy intentions in developed countries resemble what was seen during the Great Recession in 2008. Unlike the Great Recession when job losses affected men more than women, however, pandemic job losses were greater for women and probably contributed to altered pregnancy plans. Birth rates have been falling in wealthy developed countries throughout the world, and the pandemic will undoubtedly accelerate the drop.

Have your plans to have a baby been changed by the pandemic?

    Copyright @2022 by Susan Newman

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    References

    Kahn, Linda G. and Leonardo Trasande, Mengling Liu, Shilpi S. Mehta-Lee, Sara G. Brubaker, Melanie H. Jacobson. (2021). “Factors Associated With Changes in Pregnancy Intention Among Women Who Were Mothers of Young Children in New York City Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.” JAMA Network Open: 4 (9): e2124273 DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24273

    Kearney, MS, Levine, PB. (2020). “The coming COVID-19 baby bust: update.” The Brookings Institute: December 17.

    Lindberg, Laura D. and Alicia VandeVusse, Jennifer Mueller and Marielle Kirstein (2020). “Early Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the 2020 Guttmacher Survey of Reproductive Health Experiences." The Guttmacher Institute: June.

    Luppi, Francesca, and Bruno Arpino, Alessandro Rosina (2020). “The impact of COVID-19 on fertility plans in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom.” Demographic Research: Volume 43, pages 1399–1412 DOI: 10.4054/DemRes.2020.43.47

    Micelli, Elisabetta and Gianmartin Cito, Andrea Cocci, Gaia Polloni, Giorgio Ivan Russo, Andrea Minervini, Marco Carini, Alessandro Natali & Maria Elisabetta Coccia. (2020). "Desire for parenthood at the time of COVID-19 pandemic: an insight into the Italian situation." Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 41:3, 183-190, DOI: 10.1080/0167482X.2020.1759545

    Reed, Beverly G. MD. (2020). “Petition to American Society of Reproductive Medicine: Fight for women's rights to fertility treatment and evaluation.” Change.org.

    Zhu, Chenfeng and Jiahao Wu, Yan Liang, Li Yan, Chuqing He, Luting Chen, Jian Zhang. (2020). “Fertility intentions among couples in Shanghai under COVID-19: A cross-sectional study.” International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics. September.

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