A: No. So far being cooped up at home has NOT led to more babies.
Nerdy Guest Dr. Alison Gemmill answered a few questions about fertility during COVID. Dr. Gemmill (Assistant Professor; Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) is a demographer who studies fertility and women’s and perinatal health.
1.) What has been happening with fertility patterns over the past year in the US and around the world?
Now that we’re in the first quarter of 2021, we’re getting a good sense of COVID’s effects on birth rates both here in the US and globally. While initially many entertained the idea of a baby boom (since people were spending more time together at home), what we actually see is what most social scientists have predicted: a baby bust. That is, we’re seeing a drop in the number of births due to the pandemic and its associated economic fallout across many countries.
While national data from the US won’t be available until later this year, some states have released preliminary information. Philip Cohen at the University of Maryland, College Park has been documenting some of these findings on his blog, and he finds a drop in the birth rate by about 5-10% across several US states, including California, Iowa, and Arizona. That’s a similar magnitude to what we saw with the drop in fertility that followed the Great Recession. In some countries, COVID-related fertility declines appear to be even larger. Preliminary data from Spain and some regions in Brazil are showing drops as large as 20%!
Interestingly, though, not all countries are seeing a drop in births, at least not yet. A colleague of mine, for example, found no substantial change in the birth rate in Denmark. One of the questions we’ll be looking into over the next few years is why the pandemic affected births in some countries but not others.
2.) What are the underlying reasons for these patterns?
There are many reasons why we’re seeing a baby bust, but I think the biggest reasons have to do with the economy and uncertainty of the pandemic. We know from history that when the economy worsens, births go down. We also know that when people have less confidence about the future, they’re less willing to bring a child into the world. Survey research from the early months in the pandemic reflects these patterns; in May 2020, about a third of reproductive-aged women reported wanting to delay childbearing or have fewer children because of the pandemic, and this figure was even higher for lower-income households.
We can also think about more mechanical reasons for changes in births, such as sexual activity and contraceptive use. In the US, survey data from earlier months of the pandemic show a decrease in partnered sex, which means fewer opportunities for pregnancy. We also know that some subgroups of people have faced increased and often unnecessary barriers to accessing abortion and reproductive health care during the pandemic, but we don’t yet have a good sense of how these restrictions and obstacles may have affected fertility among these groups. Finally, social distancing and other public health measures have also reduced opportunities for sex and dating during the pandemic, which will depress fertility in the near-term.
3.) To what extent do you think these declines are simply delays in timing of pregnancies?
This is the big question. Will we see a full recuperation of births that went missing during the pandemic? Or will the pandemic lead to permanent changes in the number of children people have?
For those in economically secure situations who feel ready to parent, I’d expect that any reduction in childbearing due to the pandemic is temporary. In this case, people would revisit their childbearing goals once things improve and ultimately have children. But for many people, especially those impacted by job loss, unstable housing, and financial uncertainty, the pandemic and associated economic recession will lead some to decide to have fewer (or no) children; or the costs of having children will just be too large to overcome, which means that they won’t be able to have the kids they want.
I’d also expect that the longer-term effects of the pandemic on fertility depend on how old you are during the pandemic. We know from prior research that women who experience an economic recession in their early 20s have fewer children over their lifetimes than those who experience recessions at other ages. This might be because younger people who enter the labor market during economic recessions experience lower lifetime income than those who don’t. We’ve seen over and over that these types of economic factors matter for family formation, so if we want to ultimately bolster fertility, improving economic security among people of childbearing age (e.g. reducing student loan debt, reducing barriers to homeownership) would be a worthwhile goal.