An “unprecedented” fall in pre-term births in one of the country’s largest maternity hospitals is being credited to the effect of positive lifestyle influences during the lockdown.
The number of underweight babies fell dramatically in University Maternity Hospital Limerick in the first four months of the year, a trend researchers believe is due to reduced stress and healthier lifestyles brought on by the Covid-19 restrictions.
There was a 73 per cent reduction in the number of very low birth-weight babies born in the hospital, compared to the average for the same first four months of the year in the preceding two decades, a study has found.
If the same finding is replicated nationally for the first four months of the year, there could be up to 200 fewer very-low-weight births this year, and several hundred more if the effect were to last to the end of the year.
Likening the unique conditions of the lockdown to "nature's experiment", lead author Prof Roy Philip said the improvements were due to a mix of self-imposed behavioural changes by mothers and externally imposed socio-environmental changes.
These include: reduced work; stress; commuting and financial strain; increased family support; reduced environmental pollution; better infection avoidance; improved sleep and nutritional support; adequate exercise; and reduced exposure to tobacco and illegal drugs.
The findings, if reflected in other countries with lockdown, could trigger greater understanding of the poorly understood pathways that lead to pre-term birth (before 37 weeks of gestation), the authors say.
More than 15 million babies are born too early, too sick and too small in the world every year, and one million of these children die.
Just three very low-birth-weight babies (less than 1.5kg), and no extreme low-weight babies (less than 1kg), were born in Limerick between January and April this year – there were 1,381 births during the period; the rate in the previous 20 years was 3.77 times higher for this period of the year.
Prof Philip said a normal yearly variation might be 5-10 per cent but he described the 73 per cent fall as “unprecedented”.
The study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, investigated the possibility that the very small number of low-weight babies born in 2020 was the result of the change in abortion law.
An examination of regional and national historic data suggests this is not the case, it says.
The trend seen from early March onwards was influenced by the pre-lockdown period of extra public-health vigilance that started in mid-February, it says.
The effects will continue to be seen in the coming months “until such time as normality influencers are operating again”.
“However, post-lockdown deterioration in socio-environmental factors or a baby boom in late 2020 could increase the pre-term birth rates.”
Similar findings have been reported in Denmark, were a 90 per cent reduction in extremely low-weight babies has occurred.