Stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic are actually more likely to cause a baby bust than a baby boom.

By Melissa Mills
June 25, 2020
Credit: ER Productions Limited/Getty Images

Most Americans have been stuck at home since mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, and many joked in the early days of the pandemic that there'd surely be a spike in the number of new babies born approximately nine months later. As the myth goes, major natural disasters—or things like a blizzard or blackout—that cause people to remain indoors are often followed by a baby boom. Turns out, that's probably not going to be the case. Even with close contact and more time spent together among couples, research suggests that the U.S. can expect up to half a million fewer babies next year. A baby bust, if you will.

Looking at data from economic studies on fertility, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the recession of 2007-2009, researchers at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., reports that "the decline in births could be on the order of 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year." With a country in the midst of an economic crisis—in fact, more than 40 million people filed for unemployment since March— paired with the anxiety and uncertainty that surround it and a lack of access to things like fertility treatments, which were paused because of the coronavirus, signs point to a drastic drop in birth rates in the year to come.

According to the Brookings team, the U.S. birth rate dropped by 9 percent between 2007 (when it was 69.1 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) and 2012 (at 63.0 births per 1,000 women), meaning that about 400,000 fewer babies were born after the recession. On top of that, the researchers found that from 2003 and 2018, an increase in the state unemployment rate of 1 percent led to a 0.9 percent reduction in birth rate.

Analyzing data from the influenza pandemic of 1918 (aka the Spanish Flu), Brookings found that "large spikes in mortality were matched by large declines in births." The typically steady birth rate of 24 births per 1,000 people dropped to 21 births per 1,000, marking a 12.5 percent drop. Now, with more than 2 million people infected and over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, Brookings suggests that COVID-19 could play an even larger role on a decline in births due to both economic and health factors.

"On top of the economic impact, there will likely be a further decline in births as a direct result of the public health crisis and the uncertainty and anxiety it creates, and perhaps to some extent, social distancing," wrote study authors Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine. "Our analysis of the Spanish Flu indicated a 15 percent decline in annual births in a pandemic that was not accompanied by a major recession. And this occurred during a period in which no modern contraception existed to easily regulate fertility."

Rahul Gupta, M.D., chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes in New York, agrees with Brookings Institution's findings and told CNN that a baby bust was more likely than a baby boom: "As I see my patients, I see more and more demands on family planning and contraceptives and other things, coupled with the economic forces and people losing their jobs."

According to Gupta, "The economic and demographic implications that stem from a severe drop in pregnancies could have a tremendous impact on the next generation, which is why this is an important and very serious issue."

Though we're still living in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, health experts warn of a potential second wave of cases, urging Americans to continue practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings. This means that the we haven't yet fully seen the effects, which are sure to be long-lasting, and Brookings researchers say, "We expect that many of these births will not just be delayed—but will never happen."

With the U.S. birth rate on a downward trend for the past five years—rates reached an all-time low in 35 years in 2019—it seems like the decline shows no signs of stopping.


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