Life

Is COVID Really Causing a Baby Bust?

Early signs point to a decline—but how low will the birthrate go?

Empty bassinets at a hospital.
fotoVoyager/iStock/Getty Images Plus

If you thought that the forced togetherness of the pandemic might yield a bumper crop of babies, early data are suggesting otherwise. “There’s No Coronavirus Baby Boom—More Like a Baby Bust,” the headline of a post by Noah Pransky on NBC’s LX.com site proclaimed this week. (News to which parents across the country, nerves stretched to their maximum, responded: “Duh!”) The post gathered a few scattered reports of lowered birthrates in December, coming from hospitals and states, adding weight to the other hypothesis, that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in many fewer babies being born in 2021 than would have been in an alternate (and probably better) universe.

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But it’s only January of 2021—isn’t it still too soon to know? I called Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland, who is tracking the situation, to talk more about what the evidence looks like so far.

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Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: From where we stand right now, in late January of 2021, what’s your assessment of our evidence for a COVID baby bust?

Philip Cohen: I don’t know that we’re going to have a bust “yes or no” verdict right away. The way I see it, we’re now looking at a clear decline in births. And the question is, can we attribute it to the pandemic? And is it large enough to be a significant event? I do want to be a little cautious about it, still.

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Is there a technical definition of what constitutes a baby “bust” or “boom”?

No, there’s not. The baby boom was clearly defined by the large jump in the birthrate in 1945, and then was declared over in 1964 when the birthrate fell to a level that it had been before. That boom was clearly marked by sudden shifts in the birthrate. I don’t think we can say right now that we see that for 2020.

I think if history looks at this moment as a baby bust, it will probably be using the annual numbers from 2021, just looking at the timing of how all this has happened. The timing of the event, it started in February, March of 2020; it takes the average couple a few months to get pregnant, even if they’re trying.

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I’m curious about what’s happened in the past, in terms of birthrates responding to disasters. What kind of evidence do we have on that? And when we talk about demographic responses to disasters, what kinds of disasters are we talking about—economic, like the Great Depression; natural, like a forest fire or something? How do they vary?

We can look at the categories of pandemics, major economic shocks, and natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. The first two are the things I’ve looked at more recently, so I’ll bracket natural disasters—though I’m confident enough to say that this is an issue we’ve seen in those cases also. But with something like the 1918 influenza pandemic, I can say that there was a steep drop in fertility and then a rebound. When we look at recessions, we see similar effects, especially in 2009, after the Great Recession, when there was a large drop in birthrates—from which we have not recovered, by the way.

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Looking at these past examples, what can you say about the factors that lead to these busts?

I think we can put it in two categories. One is the planned birth. With that, all of things that make people insecure, uncertain, or make them feel like their lives are precarious can lead them to delay. People lose their jobs and decide not to have children; people can’t afford to get their own place, move out from their parents’ homes to have children … and if you can’t pay to get your own place, a place you can live in with your partner and feel like you’ll be stable there, you may delay. And now, women are expecting to have careers, so there are issues like work-family balance, child care, family leave that enter into the decision-making. Anything that threatens the logistics and material ability, wants, and needs for parenting is going to affect people’s deliberate decisions.

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Then there’s the unintended births. And here is where I think you’ll see that this [COVID] crisis will also lead to fewer births. Because the short answer is people are having less sex, but there’s also just less relationship-building, less taking it to the next level. You either aren’t meeting people, or if you’re meeting people, maybe you’re taking it more slowly. It’s sort of like the social metabolism of family life has just slowed down—in this case, literally from isolation.

But even in the case of a recession, it’s people not getting on their feet, not being desirable partners, not finding other desirable partners. All the things that pull people together are less active.

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I feel like there’s something unquantifiable here, which might also contribute, which is depression, grief, and trauma—the psychological aspects of this.

Oh yes. We are just scratching the surface as far as understanding the psychological impact of this crisis. This level of social isolation—there’s nothing like it in modern times. The numbers we see are scary and large, like the percentage of people who have considered suicide, and suicide is always the tail of the distribution of depression and mental health problems. So I expect that to be bad.

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I clicked on the link to your PowerPoint on possible leading indicators of the baby bust, like online searches for certain topics, or sales of condoms, and it’s so interesting. I was going to say, “How do you come up with these creative ways of predicting this?” but then I realize of course, that’s your job! Ha! But how much stock do you put in these kinds of indicators?

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There’s a bit of art and a bit of science to it, of course! I’ve been complaining for years that social scientists aren’t even the people who really know, now, about these leading indicators. It’s Facebook and Google. Facebook might know right now how many pregnant people there are, if they want to know. Social scientists will spend years trying to get a grant to analyze some survey of a thousand people on Facebook, and the people working there already know so much more.

That aside! Google does make some data available for easy analysis, so just using Google Trends I looked for things where you’d not expect to see a big change from one year to the next. So I looked at searches like “pregnancy vitamins” or “morning sickness”; also things related to sex, like “pain during sex,” “bleeding after sex”—thinking that people would really only Google that if they were having sex or thinking about having sex. And I looked at the annual report from the company that makes Trojan condoms, and they had a big decline in sales in the second and third quarter.

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What I don’t have is the ability to turn those things into a number, to make a prediction of how big the bust will be. There was one paper that tried to quantify the effect of some Google searches—they went back a few years and tried to see when searches about morning sickness rise, how many births follow, and to use that history to develop a prediction [about a COVID bust]—and they predicted a 15 percent drop in fertility. Which is pretty big! I think what we’ve seen so far has been in the range of a 5 to 8 percent drop.

We’ve heard about things happening in the course of the pandemic that might result in more unwanted or unplanned pregnancies than might occur in a nonpandemic universe: things from skipping appointments to get an IUD put in, out of fear of COVID or because of loss of health insurance, all the way to people who are in violent situations and lose control over their fertility. How does that kind of pandemic effect factor into your predictions?

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Right! Yes. The truth is, when something this big happens, you can imagine effects going in lots of different directions. Another factor is, of course, access to abortion services being restricted. And yes, for people in abusive situations, we know this has been really bad. How do we account for people becoming pregnant who didn’t want to get pregnant? Who didn’t have the ability to avoid it?

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On the other hand, there could be some less awful reasons making pandemic pregnancies more likely—maybe a couple who are normally separated for work, one partner travels or whatever, and they’re together more, and they decide to get pregnant or get pregnant accidentally because they’re just around each other more. Some of that is probably happening, to some degree, and it’s going to be hard to sort out the net effects! Those stories are going to be important to tell the story of the whole event.

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I do think there’s a naïve version of this, which is the idea that you throw people together and nine months later: baby! And maybe if you were talking about a snowstorm that locks people up for three or four days, or your team wins the Super Bowl, that’s one thing, but in our situation, we’ve become very quickly swamped by the downside. You have people not being happy, not wanting to have sex, not wanting to have children, all the way to postponing marriages, not being able to live together, not having any privacy.

And existing children at home, proving to you every day how difficult it can be!

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Right! People are right up against it: Do you have enough rooms for your kids to be doing school at home? So people are constantly thinking about the size of their house and apartment, what can they afford, when thinking about having more children.

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I know there has finally been some movement on family-friendly policy with Joe Biden coming in, like Democratic lawmakers saying that they’re going to move forward on this idea of transforming the child tax credit into a monthly allowance for families with kids. (To which I say: Do it!) Is there evidence that this kind of policy move, if Congress were to magically pass such a plan and announce it tomorrow, would encourage people to go ahead with a pregnancy they’re debating right now?

My read on the literature is that things like cash supports and rewards and bonuses do tend to have a short-term effect on birthrates but not a big long-term effect. So it is possible that if what we’re seeing now is the short-term dampening effect of the pandemic, that could actually make a difference. It might change some calculations, especially in the last few months and going into this next year, with people thinking This is ending—the pandemic is going to be over this year. So they might take a leap of faith and decide to get their plans back on track.

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It’s hard, this situation is so unique, but yes, I do think there’s some evidence that this kind of policy has an effect, along with policies that increase access to child care, education, and housing. Even something like the eviction moratorium could make a difference, to reduce uncertainty. I can’t predict that will actually lead to more births, but I can say that housing is in the category of things that you need to get sorted before you decide to have children!

So 2021 is when we’re really going to have a sense of what happened, and in 2022 we’ll start getting your papers analyzing it?  

Ha! Well, we’ll look at it, write about it as it comes in. January should be the real beginning of a big drop, if it’s happening. Those January, February, March numbers will be important.

I’ll be so curious to see. This will be the subject of books!

Oh, yes. We’re going to be working on this for the rest of our careers.

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