The number of babies born in January 2021 has dropped from previous years due to health concerns related to COVID-19.
Countries with the strictest lockdowns at the start of 2020 and overcrowded intensive care units saw the biggest declines in live births 9 to 10 months later, Swiss scientists say.
Dr Leo Pomar, first author of the study and a sonographer midwife at the University Hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland, said: “The drop in births nine months after the start of the pandemic seems to be more frequent in countries where health systems were struggling and capacity in hospitals was overwhelmed.”
“This has led to lockdowns and social distancing measures to try to contain the pandemic,” Dr Pomar explained.
“The longer the confinements, the fewer pregnancies there are during this period, even in countries that are not severely affected by the pandemic.”
Live births in England and Wales fell by 13% in January 2021, compared to 2018 and 2019, and in Scotland they fell by 14%.
The countries that have seen the greatest reduction in live births are Lithuania (28%) and Romania (23%).
The researchers found that Sweden, which had no lockdown, did not experience a decline in live births, despite a high number of deaths from the pandemic.
The duration of confinements was the only linking factor the team found associated with the decline in live births in January 2021, compared to January 2019 and January 2018.
Dr Pomar commented: “The association we found with the duration of shutdowns may reflect a much more complex phenomenon, as shutdowns are government decisions used as a last resort to contain a pandemic.
“The duration of confinement has a direct impact on couples.”
Although birth rates have now seen a resurgence, research shows that March 2021 was the only month on record to have the birth rate at a level similar to the average rate before the pandemic.
This rebound is still not enough to offset the drop in the birth rate in January 2021.
Dr Pomar said: “The fact that the rebound in births does not appear to offset the decline in January 2021 could have long-term consequences for demographics, particularly in Western Europe where populations are ageing.”
Christian De Geyter, associate editor of Human Reproduction and professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland, said data on the impact of lockdowns on couples seeking fertility treatment is not yet available.
Professor De Geyter, who was not involved in the study, commented: “These observations are important because they show that human reproductive behavior, as evidenced by the number of live births, changes during dramatic events, d ‘epidemics and global crises.’