Baby boom or baby bust? How Covid-19 has affected pregnancy

Suzanne Kane and her husband Joey at their home in Walkinstown. Photograph: Laura Hutton/The Irish Times.
The relaxed atmosphere of lockdown has led to a spike in pregnancies, says one hospital. But for some, Covid-19 and economic uncertainty have had the opposite effect

Throughout the year, maternity nurses know when to expect a slight increase in babies being born; nine months after the festive bonhomie of Christmas and New Year is one such spot in the calendar.

“We saw a slight rise in numbers after Storm Emma, too,” observes Fiona Hanrahan, director of midwifery and nursing at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. “If there’s a rugby international, or St Patrick’s weekend, we might see a spike – nothing to overwhelm services, but you still notice it – nine months later.”

And last month, it was reported that the pandemic might just have ushered in another “baby boom”: the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin said that it is expecting a busy January. Mary Brosnan, director of midwifery and nursing at the hospital, revealed in a radio interview that bookings for early 2021 were “quite busy”.

“If you compare last January to 2021 coming . . . it looks certainly we will be up 10 per cent on that month. But I wouldn’t say 10 per cent for the full year,” she said. “I don’t know if you can entirely say [it’s down to Covid-19]. It’s very much an interesting phenomenon . . . any time there’s any big event, people kind of predict nine months later . . . and think whether that’ll be related.”

Suzanne Kane, co-host of the Dubland podcast, is one such expectant mother, who believes she conceived in March. Kane, already mother to Oisín and Hannah, had experienced a miscarriage in December.

“We were going to have the pandemic [lockdown] for two weeks, like the snow,” she smiles. “I was super excited about it at the time, ironically. Over a glass of wine I said to [my partner] Joey, ‘I’m really sad about the baby we lost. I’d like to have another baby’. And it was very much a case of ‘let’s see what happens’.”

Kane realised she was pregnant at the “peak” of the pandemic. “I was ecstatic, but within four minutes I was terrified, as I’d been hearing stories about women having babies in lockdown with little support.

Oh, Instagram is definitely awash with it. Sure isn’t Amy Huberman having a baby? If Amy’s having one, that’s it – she’s the leader of women

“On the upside, I didn’t have to do the whole lying-about-being-on-antibiotics thing,” she laughs. “On a Zoom with my friends, I had a wine glass with Coke in it.”

Kane has noticed “loads” of pregnancy announcements on social media: “Oh, Instagram is definitely awash with it. Sure isn’t Amy Huberman having a baby? If Amy’s having one, that’s it – she’s the leader of women,” she says.

Last month, actor/writer Huberman announced on social media that she was expecting her third child, and “over the halfway mark” in her pregnancy.

Former model Rosanna Davison announced in July that she is due to give birth to “miracle” twin boys, after experiencing 14 pregnancy losses in recent years.“My doctor can’t offer a medical explanation for why I have been able to sustain this pregnancy, and it will probably always remain one of life’s mysteries,” Davison wrote on Instagram. “However, we found out I was pregnant after the first month of lockdown when I was far more physically relaxed than I’ve been in years and enjoying the slow pace of family life at home.”

Has the apparent slowdown in life in the spring of 2020 contributed to this perceived increase in pregnancies, as Davison suggests my have been a factor for her?

Calmer

Lisa Wilkinson’s wellbeing facility the Elbowroom in Stoneybatter offers holistic fertility advice, as well as prenatal and postpartum services. She notes that when the central nervous system is calmer, fertility can occasionally experience a boost.

“When you’re looking after yourself, and the idea gets into your psyche that you’re giving yourself care, as a lot of people did at the beginning of lockdown, your adrenaline goes down,” Wilkinson explains. “Adrenaline and cortisol – the ‘stress’ hormone – are counterproductive to ovulation and implantation,” she says.

Róisín Matthews and her husband Rob Mullen-Reynolds at their home in Drogheda. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.
Róisín Matthews and her husband Rob Mullen-Reynolds at their home in Drogheda. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Róisín Matthews, a Louth-based mother of two who owns Mess Chef cookery school, is due to give birth to her third child in February.

“It was planned to a certain extent,” she reflects. “We weren’t exactly trying, but if it happened, it happened.”

In Matthews’ first trimester of her pregnancy, having her husband Rob working from home proved to be a boon. “I needed to lie down and have two naps a day, and having Rob in the house was brilliant for that. I’d go straight to bed on his lunch break.”

The slowdown in life’s pace was certainly a factor in the couple getting pregnant, she believes. “Opportunity-wise, it was pretty difficult [before the pandemic] . . . We would kind of aim to try [to conceive] in a certain week, and when the week would go by and we’d be working late or busy, the usual craic. When all plans got cancelled [during lockdown], timing became less of an issue.

“My mother had worked as a social worker, and a lot of her work was pregnancy-related,” Matthews says. “If ever she heard of a woman experiencing difficulties with fertility, she had an old-fashioned solution: ‘That woman needs to give up work!’ To her, people needed to chill out and give their bodies a chance.”

Could it be that other pandemic factors gave people pause to consider starting or expanding their families?

For many people, lockdown was a time for a lot of soul-searching and taking stock of where their lives were at... people started thinking on a deeper level 

Margaret Dunne is a Dublin-based therapist who offers fertility counselling to couples. “I would say that before lockdown, the pace of life was so fast that people were finding it hard to even have sex to get pregnant,” she says. “There was very little time for closeness or enjoyment.

“For many people, [lockdown]was a time for a lot of soul-searching and taking stock of where their lives were at,” Dunne adds. “If they weren’t thinking of having a child, once these people got off the merry-go-round, people started thinking on a deeper level: ‘There’s more to life than this.’

Fertility clinics

While lockdown might well have been a help for some people hoping to conceive, there are other Irish couples for whom it has been a hindrance on their fertility journey. “The pandemic caused huge problems for people already on the fertility trail, as all the clinics closed down,” says Dunne. “Some were taking medication for weeks and were ready for egg collection, and then the clinics shut down overnight.”

Despite the reports of an increase in appointments at the National Maternity Hospital, others working within the maternity services suspect that reports of a baby boom could well be exaggerated.

In fact, some social analysts predict a baby “bust” in the developed world, driven by economic and financial instability.

In June, the Brookings Institution estimated the US birth rate would drop by between 300,000 and 500,000 over the coming year, based on fertility trends during past recessions and crises.

According to research carried out in June by the London School of Economics, a survey of people aged 18 to 34 in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK found the pandemic had had “a strong and negative” effect on fertility choices. Fifty per cent or more of respondents in France, Germany, the UK and Spain said they would postpone having children.

I think a so-called baby boom related to Covid is a bit of a myth.

Closer to home, Prof Michael O’Connell, master of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital, said: “We haven’t seen an increase in the number of women attending our hospital, and in fact the numbers for the first six months of this year are in line with the first half of 2019.”

‘Myth’

Prof Fergal Malone, master of the Rotunda Hospital, concurs. “We see around 750-800 patients a month, and we’ve looked at January to July, and each of those months is identical [in new admissions]. I think a so-called baby boom related to Covid is a bit of a myth.

“You could argue that births in Ireland have been significantly low for the last five years, although the declining birth rate was never applied to the Rotunda, as our catchment area in north Dublin has always been an area of population growth,” Malone adds. “Perhaps with Covid, this decline is simply flattening off.”

“Yet especially at the start, it might have convinced people to put off pregnancy until there was more clarity in that regard.”

Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry at the School of Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, predicts that a baby boom might in fact not materialise until later in 2021.

“There’s a thing called ‘mortality shock’, where if you’re worried about death you might be inclined to have more babies, strangely, because you want to have some kind of hope, and you might see a baby boom [then],” he says.

It’s like there is a literal lust for life, an evolutionary sense of ‘let’s get the species going again’

“There were studies on previous pandemics even as far back as 150 years ago where they noticed spikes in the birth rate. Initially, there was a dip in 1918, but after a year there was a spike,” he adds. “In a psychological sense, people are anxious and initially lose their faith in mortality, but then there appears to be a sense of ‘good God, you’ve just got one life’. It’s like there is a literal lust for life, an evolutionary sense of ‘let’s get the species going again’.”

O’Neill believes that, in the same way that the troops coming home after the second World War kickstarted a baby boom, the emergence of a Covid vaccine could have a similar effect.

“If we’re lucky, there will be a release of pressure and people can see their future more clearly,” he says. “There’s something about the prospect of a new beginning.”