For months now, demographers and other social scientists have been predicting a covid baby bust because marriages were postponed, pubs were closed, anxiety levels were up, measured fertility intentions were down, sexual activity went down (in some reports), and economic uncertainty was up. The dominant story of lock downs and babies so far has been (also for Australia) that the genders cant find each other, can’t close the deal, and think its a bad idea to have children in these circumstances anyway. Historically also, recessions are bad for babies.
And yet, whilst cycling through the Netherlands during the family holidays, I was struck by a story in a regional newspaper that said the local mid-wives expected a baby boom. The article said they had many more inquiries and bookings. There is a similar (but somewhat inconclusive) report from New Zealand that the mid-wives are overbooked for some of the coming period.
Mid-wives are only part of the pregnancy story though and the reports for individual mid-wives prove very little. How about hospitals? Well, some hospitals in Switserland are also reporting an increase and, like in Australia, more pregnancy tests sold in shops. There was another such recent report from the National maternity ward in Ireland. So we have indicative reports from four countries of a possible baby boom, plus national data from at least two countries on strong increases in pregnancy tests. Not conclusive, but still. What could be going on and how would it affect the tally of the pros and cons of lock downs and social distancing?
It is early days, as one might say, and it might be true that there is a left-field explanation for the hospital and midwifery reports on an impending baby boom. Maybe we’re not hearing from the under-booked hospitals. Maybe pregnant women are now more anxious and have more time to book their hospitals and mid-wives in advance. Maybe newspapers are just keen on “good news in times of lock down” stories. Maybe many midwives are unusually busy with other things, like helping out lone mothers or with looking after their own children, leaving hospitals and particular midwives to be overbooked. All four reasons are eminently possible, though they seem a little far-fetched to me, particularly given how the boom stories coincide with the pregnancy test increases (up 30% in Australia), which is data that is representative of whole countries.
We’ll know with more certainty soon, but it does now seem possible that a baby boom might actually be underway in lock down land. That could, if it truly materialises, be very important for an assessment of the long-run consequences of lock downs.
I doubt the reason for more babies is that people have had more sex, basically because it doesn’t take much sex to have babies and if people don’t want to have babies, they will find ways not to have them even if they do have more sex. I also don’t buy the argument that hordes of pregnant women wanting an abortion are too afraid to go to clinics and hospitals and so reluctantly choose to have babies anyway: I just can’t see that being true for the Dutch and the Swiss who are quite comfortable with the idea of abortion pills and where the vast majority of kids are planned. Besides, lock downs were relatively short periods in those countries. If there is a boom, it would have to be because many couples have decided they actually want more children.
The best reason I can think of for a possible boom is that the lock downs and social distancing might have made people more family oriented. If one is forbidden from closely interacting with those outside the home, make some more inside the home!
A similar potential explanation is that the covid period has made careers seem much less important than they were before. Filling one’s life with kids makes more sense if the alternatives are less admired.
Neither reason would have held in previous recessions so are not invalidated by the historical record. Both these potential explanations are specifically due to lock downs and social distancing.
If a covid baby boom happens in particular Western countries, I would certainly count it as an important silver lining of lock downs and social distancing, particularly if the boom happens because careers and getting rich have reduced in importance. We will find out soon!