- A new study from the Netherlands lends more support to the emerging theory that lockdowns led to a big drop in preterm births worldwide. Nearly 40 nations have teamed up to share data about birth trends during the pandemic, which so far suggest that the positive trends depend heavily on the mothers’ socioeconomic circumstances. (The New York Times)
- NH: Earlier this spring, as countries around the world locked down to prevent the spread of Covid-19, neonatal doctors began noticing an unusual trend: Preterm births were falling, in some cases drastically. Doctors from Ireland to the United States to Australia reported that they were seeing anywhere from a 20% to 90% reduction in the usual number of premature births.
- Public health researchers from the Netherlands just released the largest study on this phenomenon yet. Using data on premature births from 2010 to 2020, they were able to determine that the number of preemies dropped by about 15 to 23% after lockdowns went into effect in March. The data from earlier years helped them account for other factors like seasonal variations--and no matter which months they looked at, the researchers saw that the number of premature births post-lockdown was unmistakably lower. The drop occurred across all ages of premature births, which are defined as any delivery before 37 weeks.
- At first glance, this is wonderful news. Babies born premature are at risk for serious health problems, particularly those born before 32 weeks. Doctors have long searched for ways to reduce early births, but struggled to identify the causes. Now they have new clues. Some are theorizing that lockdowns resulted in less stress from work and commuting for many pregnant women, as well as less exposure to air pollution. Women staying home may also have been at less risk of infection--not only for Covid-19, but also other illnesses like the flu.
- But the decline in premature births doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these babies would have been born naturally, or were born as healthy full-term infants. Some later-end premature births are due to mothers choosing to induce labor early or doctors inducing due to health problems such as high blood pressure--practices that may be less common now due to the virus. And sadly, some of these babies may have died. Nepal and India, for instance, reported a rise in stillbirths in the spring--though no other country so far has reported a rise in stillbirths that corresponds in magnitude to their decline in premature births.
- In some countries, the emergence of positive preterm birth trends during the pandemic appears to depend on the socioeconomic status of the mothers. The Dutch study suggests that most of the drop may have been limited to moms in wealthier neighborhoods--in other words, those who were more likely to experience less pandemic-related stress, not more. A drop in preterm births is certainly good news, but like so much else about life in the age of Covid-19, it doesn’t appear to be shared equally.