It’s no secret that 2020 has thrown us plenty of curveballs–and it’s left many of us wondering what the future holds for both us and our babies.
But in a surprising turn of events, doctors around the world have noticed an interesting trend during the pandemic: fewer babies being born prematurely than usual. For years, researchers have struggled to understand what causes the majority of premature births, but some recent research might help us figure out why.
So, what does the research show?
Let’s rewind: think back to March and April of this year, when lockdown and shelter in place orders were shaping the “new normal” we’ve been living in this year. Suddenly, we were all spending more time at home to protect ourselves and others. As hospitals began to fill, healthcare workers noticed that one section became increasingly empty–the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands recently published studies looking into this phenomenon, and they all pointed towards the pandemic having a positive impact on premature births. But why is this happening, and what does it mean for women who are (or hope to be) pregnant? Here’s what the first study showed.
Over 31,000 babies in Denmark were studied from during March and April of this year (when lockdowns started). Researchers compared the number of premature births (born 12+ weeks early) recorded with the same period over the last 5 years, and found that the rate had dropped by an astonishing 90%.
Other places around the world have seen similar rates or no change at all in the numbers, suggesting there might actually be something else playing a part in premature birth.
A doctor based in Ireland was vacationing abroad when lockdowns began. Upon returning, he was surprised to learn that no special breastmilk for extremely premature babies (over 12 weeks premature) had been ordered while he was away. When he asked the staff about this oddity, they explained there was no need–because there were no extremely premature babies born all month. Shocked, the doctor began his research, evaluating the hospital’s premature birth data from 2001 to 2020 and included more than 30,000 Irish babies. They found the premature birth rate had decreased by about 25% during lockdown.
More recently, a study of over 1.5 million births from the Netherlands compared premature birth rates of babies born in lockdown from that last 10 years and found some pretty intriguing evidence. Researchers saw no signs that seasonal changes are influencing premature birth rates, which helps us see there must be something else causing the premature births to plummet.
The study also told us something else important: the rate of premature births dropped directly after March 9th, when the country encouraged the public to stay home. They determined that something about staying home and focusing on your health–despite higher stress levels–is somehow helping protect expecting mothers. Overall, the Netherlands saw about 15% – 23% less babies being born prematurely (including all premie babies, not just extremely premature babies which the last two studies widely represented).
But not all places are seeing a reduction in premature birth rates
Some US cities are actually seeing an increase in NICU babies – which will just help tell us more about what factors are influencing premature birth when more research is developed. However, these larger studies from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland show us the effects the pandemic is having on pregnancy and babies on a larger scale. And doctors are starting to realize something about the COVID pandemic may be helping improve birth outcomes… though we still don’t know why.
So why are fewer babies being born prematurely?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure. One hypothesis has to do with decreased pollution, increased hygiene, and lower infection rates of the common cold and flu virus. More time at home also means more rest and support from loved ones, which during the later stages of pregnancy, can be incredibly beneficial for both mom and baby.
These factors vary from region to region, which is why some hospitals may see a small increase in NICU babies rather than a decrease. For years, doctors and scientists have yearned to unlock the mystery of premature births, and this research will help them find answers that will help us in the future.
Let’s talk basics. What does it mean to have a premature baby?
About 1 in 10 babies are born early in the US, and sadly, those numbers have been on the rise for the last 5 years. Typically, women will go into labor unexpectedly and without medical assistance and are unable to stop it in time–so baby ends up arriving early.
A premature baby is defined as coming before 37 weeks of pregnancy, or more than 3 weeks early. Although those last few weeks might not seem incredibly important, they’re actually crucial days when your baby’s brain, lungs, and liver finish developing. Babies born 8 or more weeks premature are at a greater risk for devastating developmental issues like vision and hearing problems, cerebral palsy, and even death.
The key to avoiding premature birth is awareness, so if you’re pregnant and start to notice any of the following signs, go see a healthcare professional immediately. Here are the CDC’s signs of preterm labor to look out for:
- Contractions every 10 minutes or less (feels like your stomach muscles tighten in a ball)
- Abdominal cramps (can feel like menstrual cramps)
- Change in discharge (could possibly include blood)
- Dull pelvic pressure
Who’s at risk for premature birth? Can you prevent it?
Unfortunately, we don’t know why so many babies are born prematurely. Some women may be at a higher risk of delivering prematurely, so talk to your doctor if you fall into any of these categories:
- Teenagers and women 35+
- Having multiples (twins, triplets, etc)
- Have an infection
- Had a preterm birth previously
- High stress levels
- Substance or tobacco use
Research from all of these studies mentioned will help us learn more about how premature birth works and teach us how we can better prevent it from happening. At present, we know that you can reduce your risk of preterm birth by:
- Avoiding smoking. You can find free resources for smoking cessation here – and any other drugs or alcohol during pregnancy
- Stay updated with prenatal care throughout your pregnancy and talk to your doctor immediately if you notice any signs and symptoms of premature birth mentioned above
If you give birth prematurely, it doesn’t guarantee that baby will have any developmental issues, so there’s no need to panic. Medicine has advanced so much in the last two decades that many premature babies will go on to live full, healthy lives with no signs of developmental problems. But sadly, there are still so many premature babies that may need special medical care to help them develop and stay healthy–and we hope that despite the incredibly difficult and devastating year it’s been with the pandemic, the research we learn from it will go on to help so many women, and their babies, live happier and healthier futures.
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