Not even locking couples up and obliterating their social calendars could convince more Americans to have babies, as our quarantine-inspired baby boom has failed to materialize.
Instead, America has entered a pandemic-inspired baby bust.
Several states that keep track of births in near-real-time – as well as some hospital systems contacted by NBCLX – recorded significant drops in Dec. 2020 birthrates, compared to the same period from one year earlier. That includes Florida (down 8% from Dec. 2019); Ohio (down 7%); and Arizona (down 5%).
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The most significant social distancing measures went into place across much of the U.S. in mid-March. Most babies conceived after mid-March would start being born in late December.
“This is a bad situation,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. “The declines we're seeing now are… pretty substantial.”
Cohen’s research has noted not just fewer births in recent months, but also noticeable drops in Google searches for pregnancy- and sex-related topics. He says the steep pandemic-influenced drops in birth rates will likely continue for months, reflecting the societal and economic uncertainty that flourished six to nine months ago.
“People make long-term decisions when they have confidence about the future, and if there's anything that undermines confidence about the future, it's this massive pandemic,” he said.
Cohen adds that the restrictions on restaurants, bars, and other social gatherings also likely reduced the amount of casual sex taking place, which likely reduced the number of unplanned pregnancies in America.
And the authors of a recent Brookings report add the stress related to working-from-home with children could prompt existing families to reconsider ever having more children.
The pandemic is compounding an existing problem in America, as birth rates were sinking to an all-time low, even before COVID-19 arrived.
“One of the reasons we have falling birth rates is because women are deciding to spend less a percentage of their total lives raising children,” Cohen said. “So they have one or two children instead of three or four children. And they do a lot of other things in their lives…which is great for reducing gender inequality. (But) it comes with some challenges.”
Those challenges include fewer young adults to contribute to social security and other safety nets, as well as staff America’s workforce.
However, Cohen said increased immigration can help address those challenges. He’s more concerned about the nuclear family, and the inequalities in the job market, housing market, and how young adults pay for college that also contribute to economic uncertainty.
“When you look at child care, health care, housing, or education costs…these are things that put a big damper on the number of children that people have, and also make it difficult to raise them,” Cohen said. “I hope we're learning lessons…if we have the capacity to learn from that, we can make some decisions that really make it better and easier and more-fulfilling to raise children in the future.”
Some Couples 'Just Do It'
For some couples, the pandemic actually created an opportunity for stability, with prenatal care still reliably available in many areas…not to mention virtually every social activity for nine straight months stricken from the calendar.
“A pandemic? Whatever,” said a nonchalant Hilary Patel, who got pregnant with her husband Kalpesh, at the start of April 2020. “You just do it.”
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But while the Patel's pregnancy was a smooth one, the process was no cakewalk emotionally. Every dry throat caused panic, and every trip out of the house caused anxiety. And compounding the stress, the Patels had to do it largely on their own.
“We really weren't able to see our families,” Hilary said. “I cried several times from that because I'm the first one of my sisters to be pregnant. And all I wanted was my sisters to see me growing and see the bump and just experience it all.”
“That was the hardest part,” Kalpesh added. “When you’re having a baby…you need that [family] support. And so it was challenging; it feels lonely.”
However, they finished their 40-week marathon in early January, and welcomed their new son, James, to the world, weighing in at 8 lbs., 7 oz.
Pandemic Plunge Preceded December
Confounding experts, the pandemic plunge in birth rates actually began shortly after social distancing restrictions went into place, even though those babies would have been conceived in 2019.
For example, OhioHealth, which delivers babies at 10 hospitals across the Buckeye State, saw an 11% drop in births over the second half of 2020, compared to the second half of 2019.
Texas-based JPSHealth Network reported a 13% drop in births from Dec. 2020, compared to Dec. 2019 – their ninth straight month posting fewer births than the same month, one year earlier.
“If you were pregnant in December or January and then had a huge stressful event in February/March, it's possible people had more miscarriages,” Cohen said. “It's possible people had more abortions, although people also had difficulty accessing abortion services. So we don't really know.”
Not all hospitals NBCLX reached out to showed December declines: Spectrum Health (Grand Rapids, Mich.) reported a 3% increase in Dec. 2020 deliveries, compared to the previous year; while Brigham & Women’s Hospital (Boston) reported “no major decrease” from the previous December.
Most states and hospitals contacted either couldn’t provide monthly birth data to NBCLX, or haven’t released December numbers yet. But it’s increasingly evident the pandemic had a negative impact on America’s birth rate, and with fewer young adults dating and getting married in 2020 as well, the slowdown is likely to be a sustained one.