premature, babies, COVID-19
Neonatal nurse Kirsty Hartley carries premature baby Theo Anderson to his mother Kirsty Anderson in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Lancashire Women and Newborn Centre at Burnley General Hospital in East Lancashire, following the outbreak of the COVID-19, in Burnley, Britain, May 15, 2020. Photo credit: © Hannah Mckay/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

There have been significantly fewer premature births during the pandemic. Did the lockdowns have an unintended positive consequence?

As this year draws to an end, with most of us seeing our daily routines curtailed, many will not reflect on this past year as one filled with many positives. But some research has suggested that this change in lifestyle could have inadvertently brought about a positive change for pregnant women.

Two studies, from Denmark and Ireland, seem to show a significant reduction in the number of premature births since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

What Changed?

The Irish study calculated a 73 percent reduction in the rate of very low birth weight (VLBW) premature births in April 2020 in comparison to figures from the same period over the last two decades. In the Danish study this reduction was calculated at 90 percent (for “extremely premature” infants) in comparison to figures for the last five years. 

Both countries’ results coincided with national lockdowns due to COVID-19. For the researchers, the results suggested that some cases of extreme prematurity are “preventable, which may decrease infant morbidity and mortality.” 

Did Researchers Find Out What’s Causing the Drop in Premature Births?

While pinpointing the exact cause of this reduced prevalence of premature births was not possible from the data gathered, the Irish study concluded that potential contributing factors are found “in the summative socio-environmental impact of the COVID-19 dictated lockdown.”

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How Can a Pandemic Be Good for Pregnancy?

It’s true that at first glance the results may seem contradictory; a global pandemic would hardly seem conducive to reducing the stress and well-being of expectant mothers. 

One explanation for the lower numbers of very premature births could be a reduction in inflammation and other immune-related responses. According to some studies, such responses in the body are known to increase the risk of premature births. Infection rates from other infectious diseases would also understandably fall where people maintain physical distance from one another, wear masks, and follow higher hygiene standards.

Does It Have Something to Do With Changing Life & Work Patterns?

There have been links shown between preterm labor and working more than 42 hours a week or standing for longer than six hours at a time. It may be that changing work patterns and curtailed commutes have had a positive effect on many pregnancies.

We shouldn’t draw too many rose-tinted conclusions from these studies. They haven’t yet been peer-reviewed, and specific variables attributable to the results have not been pinpointed. That said, the results do seem to offer room for reflection. What is clear is that a highly significant difference in the number of these extremely premature births was seen, coinciding with a lockdown that forced us all to live life at a different pace. Food for thought for us all as we look to 2021.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Kashfi Halford / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and Chiceaux Lynch / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).


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