Premature births plummeted during coronavirus lockdowns

Covid-19 has side effects. No, we aren’t talking about the side effects of the disease, but rather the impact of the shutdowns on our society. One positive outcome is the significant drop in premature births and potentially revolutionary knowledge about pregnancy.

Doctors in many countries, including Ireland, Denmark, and the US are recording record low numbers of premature births, especially in the earliest and most high-risk categories. Dr. Roy Philip, a neonatologist at University Maternity Hospital Limerick in Ireland, first noticed the trend when he realized that supplies of breast milk-based fortifier fed to preemies weren’t diminishing. 

When looking at birth weights, a primary indicator of premature births, Dr. Philip calculated that the hospital had recorded a quarter of the number of babies under 3.3 pounds, classified as very low birth weight, then they normally see.

At the same time, Dr. Michael Christiansen of the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen began to notice an unusually empty Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When his team dug into the data, the researchers found that during the lockdown, the rate of babies born before 28 weeks had dropped by 90 percent.

Hospitals around the world are reporting similar phenomena. Although there have been no official studies on the relationship between shutdowns and maternal health, many health experts are linking the higher rate of full-term pregnancies to less stress from work and commuting, more sleep, avoided minor illnesses, and even a drop in air pollution. 

The causes of preterm births have largely eluded researchers, but these unprecedented lockdowns could hold the key to healthier pregnancies. While many doctors expected the stress of the pandemic to induce more preemie births, it seems that shutdowns have caused quite the opposite. This new evidence could be instrumental in more effective maternal health strategies in the future. This is especially critical for mothers of color who experience higher rates of premature births. White women had about a 9 percent risk of premature birth in 2018, while African-American women’s risk was 14 percent.

Premature birth can have long term negative health effects for babies and take a significant financial and emotional toll on parents. Our own CEO here at The Optimist Daily experienced a high-risk pregnancy last year and her work from home schedule was partially responsible for ensuring the health of her and her baby. Large scale lockdown evidence further reinforces this link between a slower pace of life and healthier pregnancies.

When the lockdowns are through, we look forward to seeing the research from doctors to help us explain this unexpected boost in fetal health. 

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