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COVID baby boom? No, 2020 triggered a baby bust - and that will have lasting impacts

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/17/2020 Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY

Early in the pandemic, there were jokes about quarantines prompting a baby boom, but roughly nine months since COVID-19 triggered a national emergency in the U.S., experts are reporting a baby bust. 

There will be significantly fewer newborns this winter and in 2021.

Whether social distancing urged romantic partners to meet less, or financial strain and child care uncertainty caused families to hit pause on having kids, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a decline in both planned and unplanned pregnancies, experts said.

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Nationwide, a Brookings Institute report projected 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year. Google trends showed significant decreases in sex and pregnancy-related searches. And in a report published Wednesday, Modern Fertility found that about 30% of people with ovaries are changing their family plans, with most deciding to delay conception.

"Everything about our lives has been turned upside down," Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College and co-author of the Brookings report, told USA TODAY.

And the size of the incoming COVID baby bust, he added, could have "lasting implications for society."

Not a ‘baby boom,’ unplanned pregnancies drop

When stay-at-home orders first began in the spring, many playfully suggested that there would be a coronavirus baby boom.

Levine explains that the incorrect speculation was likely based on similar myths about birth spikes seen nine months after electricity blackouts or blizzards — when many are "stuck" inside with their partners.

"It's this nice myth that people have," he said. "A very romantic image of society — it's probably not true even in those instances, but it's certainly not true now."

Spring 2020: COVID baby boom? Prepare for jokes, if not babies! 

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t like a blackout or blizzard. The public health and economic crisis has impacted almost every aspect of daily life — including growing families.

"There's kind of a naïve view that birth results in just putting men and women in a room together, but that's not really the way it works in modern society," said Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology and demographer at the University of Maryland, College Park, pointing to both extensive conversations couples have when planning children and the high rate of pregnancies across the country that are unintended.

Cohen explains that unplanned pregnancies are declining because, in efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, people are moving around and meeting less.  

Google trends show that impact. In data analyzed by Cohen, 2020 has seen significantly less social, sex and pregnancy-related searches than in recent years — from "happy hour" to "pain during sex" and "morning sickness."

COVID baby bust: Experts see spike in birth control orders 

30% change their family plans

In a survey published Wednesday by Modern Fertility, about 30% of nearly 4,000 people with ovaries expressed that they were changing their fertility/family planning timelines this year.

Of those who said they were changing their plans:

  • Almost half (48%) decided to delay having kids
  • 26% became unsure about having kids altogether
  • 25% decided to accelerate their timelines for kids

Top reasons for accelerating timelines included the pandemic's role in emphasizing “what’s most important in life” and being able to "work from home and have a better work-life balance.”

Amanda Adomatis, 43, decided she wants to welcome a fourth child into her Alabama home.

The pandemic "made me look at the people around me — and that was my family, that was my children," she said. "We still love each other, and I want another child to join."

Top reasons for people delaying or questioning having kids altogether included feeling “unsure about my financial position,” seeing “the challenges of parenting this year” and being worried about “safely accessing prenatal care/healthcare.”

Sarah Urbanski was forced to delay her family’s timeline. She and her partner planned to use a donor who is a close friend — but he’s not a U.S. citizen, and hasn’t been able to travel to their New York home during the pandemic.

Both Urbanski, 33, and her partner have pivoted to egg retrievals and plan to pick up their donor conversation in 2021. Still, it’s been difficult to delay the major life milestone — something she recognizes may be a shared experience for other prospective parents, now more than ever.

“There’s the importance of allowing yourself to be flexible with your plans, but also grieve what you were initially trying to do,” she said. “We needed to really be present with ourselves and our feelings around trying to conceive, as well as what parenting might look like for us [amid COVID-19]… Just a very large question mark that no one could have anticipated in this part of their journey.”

More: COVID-19 means more preschool-age kids won't be ready for kindergarten

Students are falling behind in online school. Where's the COVID-19 'disaster plan' to catch them up?

Up to half a million fewer babies in 2021, lasting impact

Urbanski is not alone. The nation could see 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021, according to a June projection by Levine and Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of U.S. births in 2019 was the lowest recorded since 1985 — totaled at approximately 3.75 million, down 1% from 2018.

To put the projected COVID baby bust numbers in perspective, 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births would represent about an 8-13% decrease from last year's 3.75 million births — or 8 to 13 times the drop seen between 2018 and 2019.

The U.S. has seen declining numbers of births for years, most recently following the Great Recession of 2007-2009. But the COVID baby bust could contribute to an even more significant drop.

"It's possible that this is two things coming together at once: falling birthrates on top of falling birthrates,” said Cohen, whose research has already found birth declines in 2020 — even before the expected start of COVID baby bust births.

In terms of the pandemic's impact, Levine and Kearny’s 300,000 to 500,000 projection was made using data from the Great Recession and 1918 Spanish flu — as well as past studies on fertility's relationship with factors including unemployment and wealth.

Levine explains that we will probably see “ebbs and flows” in births next year.

"Exactly like you saw in the Spanish Flu, 9 months after a spike it's going to be worse," he said, adding that we won't truly know the coming year's results until the summer of 2022.

And even if we're in a better state public health-wise at this time next year, Levine stresses that the economy won’t be on the same timeline — and consequently, growing families will continue to be impacted.

"Recessions don't magically disappear,” he said.

From child care intensive industries to the workforce size and social security, Levine says the size of the COVID baby bust, mixed with declines already seen from the Great Recession, could have lasting implications on the economy.

In terms of addressing the impact, Cohen stresses the need of creative solutions.

"I'd rather see society adapt to lower birth rates and I think we can do that," he said. "I'm optimistic that we'll learn from this."

Impacts of birth decline: Another economic blow worsened by COVID-19  

What will 2021 bring? Promising vaccines and 'the darkest days of our war on COVID-19'

Follow Wyatte Grantham-Philips on Twitter: @wyatte_gp.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID baby boom? No, 2020 triggered a baby bust - and that will have lasting impacts

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