Contrary to fears that the coronavirus pandemic could cause a “baby bust”, the numbers of women in England expecting a baby appear to be on the rise.
Maternity statistics collected by the NHS show that although there was a dip in the number of antenatal booking appointments in May 2020, numbers quickly rebounded and continued to grow. The number of antenatal booking appointments during the fourth quarter of 2020 was the highest for five years.
A pregnant woman’s first appointment, where she meets a midwife and discusses their health, typically takes place between eight and 12 weeks into pregnancy, meaning that women attending in May 2020 would have conceived around the time of the first lockdown in March that year.
In May 2020 there were 50,965 booking appointments – down 10.4% on the same month in 2019. But since September (when women who conceived in mid-summer 2020 would have had appointments) figures have risen significantly. During September there were 58,035 appointments – the highest for that month since records began in 2015 and up 6.8% compared with September 2019.
Overall, for the final three months of 2020 there were 173,130 booking appointments. This was up 11.1% on the 152,274 in the same period in 2019, and the highest fourth-quarter figure since 2015, when NHS hospital trusts were first required to provide the data. The rise came despite a six-week suspension of NHS fertility treatment that came into effect on 23 March 2020, during the first lockdown, and lasted until 11 May.
Data on birth levels in England for December 2020 onwards (nine months after the first lockdown) will not be published until later this year, but figures on births in Northern Ireland show that it experienced a similar initial drop in pregnancies, followed by a sharp rebound.
Recent birth statistics from Europe and the US have also highlighted an initial drop in births nine months after the pandemic began. In Spain 23,226 babies were born in December 2020, 20.4% fewer than December 2019, the country’s lowest monthly level since comparable records began in 1941.
In Italy there was a 21.6% reduction the same month. France experienced a 13.3% fall in births in January 2021, the biggest month-on-month drop in 45 years. In the US, California recorded a 10.2% drop in December 2020 (32,910) compared with December 2019 (36,651).
Birte Harlev-Lam, executive director for the Royal College of Midwives, said: “While these latest figures do show an increase in the number of booking appointments it’s still a mixed picture across the UK. The increase could be down to many things: the pandemic has allowed a lot of people to adjust their lifestyles to a slower pace, working from home has also given people much more time with their families and potentially more opportunity to consider having a baby.”
Ann Berrington, professor of demography at Southampton University, said her research suggested that the pandemic may lower fertility rates for younger people without children because of the lack of socialising and the economic uncertainty, as was the case after the 2008 recession. However, it may increase the likelihood of older, more stable parents having additional children.
She said it was difficult to be certain whether a baby boom was on the way since antenatal bookings fluctuated monthly during 2020, but “it might well be the case that some of the conceptions that would normally have taken place in spring 2020 were postponed to the summer”.
Experts say baby booms are common after tragic events, which was famously the case for the “boomer” generation born after the second world war. The phenomenon has also been observed on a smaller scale, including after Princess Diana’s death and the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia.
Up to 1.9 million babies could be born in the two years after the end of lockdown if 25- to 40-year-olds follow through with their plans to start a family, research from the market research agency Opinium has suggested. The millennials surveyed said the pandemic had made them value family more, as well as making them more inclined to fast track their life goals.
However, an economic downturn, which the UK is experiencing, is typically associated with a decline in birthrates. The latest annual economic forecast from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted a baby bust for 2021, with birthrates expected to dip to the lowest level since records began owing to tighter household finances and job losses. Whether the bust turns into a boom will depend on how quickly the UK economy recovers after Covid restrictions are lifted, PwC said.