Just when it seems like parents might burst from stress during the pandemic, there’s a small glimmer of good news: premature births, especially for the earliest babies, appear to be down during the pandemic in some cases.
According to an article published in the New York Times on Sunday, doctors in both Ireland and Denmark independently noticed that there were fewer premature infants being born in their hospitals.
At University Maternity Hospital Limerick in Ireland, neonatologist Roy Philip first became curious when he noticed that the hospital was going through much less of a special formula used for preemies. Philip and his team looked at the data and found that the number of preemie births between January and April 2020 was about a quarter of what the preemie birth rate was at the hospital during that period for the previous 20 years. Normally the hospital would see at least a few micro preemies —babies born weighing less than 2.2 pounds — during the five five months of the year, but this year there were none.
Philip was surprised to see such a big change to normal birth patterns during the pandemic.
“Initially I thought, ‘There is some mistake in the numbers,’” he told the Times.
At Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, Dr. Michael Christiansen also looked at data after noticing a “nearly empty” NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit. In Denmark, the doctors looked at a smaller portion of time — from March 12 to April 13. That month was the strictest stay-at-home period in the country.
When the doctors compared data from that month to birth records from the previous five years, they found that preemie births were down 90% during that month in 2020.
Doctors in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands also told The New York Times that they saw noticeable, drastic drops in premature births, particularly of micro preemies (defined as babies that weigh less than one pound).
Here in the U.S., some doctors have seen a similar, but less drastic, pattern. At Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville the number of babies in the NICU is down about 20%, said neonatologist Stephen Patrick. Many NICU stays are associated with premature birth.
On the thread, posted on April 3, neonatologist Declan P. O’Riordan of St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho wrote that he was seeing roughly half the number of babies in the NICU than he was two months before that.
On the same thread, global health researcher Cally Tann wrote that it was “business as usual” at University College London Hospitals, so this is by no means a universal trend.
It’s important to say that there’s no scientific data or peer-reviewed articles about the apparent drop in preemie births, which is the standard for any scientific information. However, the strong anecdotal reports from neonatologists around the globe has piqued interest.
No one knows for sure that causes premature birth. However, according to the March of Dimes there are a myriad of risk factors, including working long hours, exposure to air pollution and having a lot of stress. On Patrick’s Twitter thread, doctors theorized that women spending more time at home — and possibly having more time to relax and stay off their feet — might contribute to the reduction in preemie births. It’s possible that viral infections (just the regular kind, not COVID) can contribute to premature birth, and that women were being exposed to fewer viruses this spring.
No matter what the reason, the reduction in premature births — if it is proven — could provide an interesting opportunity for researchers in the future. By looking at the trends from the pandemic, researchers might find clues to what causes premature births, which could lead to discovering ways to prevent it.
Dr. Christiansen, who noticed the trend early-on in Denmark, is hopeful that this will provide an opportunity for doctors to learn more about premature birth.
“For years, nothing has advanced in this very important area, and it seems it took a virus attack to help us get on track,” he concluded.