Mothers of newborn babies waiting out side the labour room | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Text Size:

Here at last is some good news about the Covid-19 pandemic and the wholesale disruption to our lives it has caused: In many places with strict lockdowns this spring, there were far fewer premature births than is considered normal.
The trend doesn’t appear to be universal, but where it applies, the data are staggering. In Denmark, the number of babies born after less than 28 weeks of gestation — 40 weeks is the norm — dropped by 90% during the country’s month-long lockdown this spring. In one region of Ireland, the rate of preemies with very low birth weight was down by 73% between January and April compared with averages over the preceding two decades. Somewhat smaller decreases have been observed in parts of Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. Elsewhere, clinics and doctors are now scurrying to examine their own data.

Also read: Investing in the young is the best way to recover from the Covid economic crisis

One reason to rejoice is, of course, that this means many parents had healthier, happier babies this spring. Premature birth and low gestational weight are associated with various medical complications, ranging from cerebral palsy or death in the worst cases to learning disabilities or visual problems in later life. For example, it’s why Stevie Wonder, an American singer who was born six weeks early, is blind.

But the bigger reason to cheer is that this phenomenon could eventually help us understand what causes premature birth in the first place, and thus how to prevent it. For now we can only speculate, as the researchers behind the Danish and Irish work freely admit — their papers haven’t yet been peer-reviewed.

One explanation for fewer premature births may be the decreases in air pollution during the lockdowns, as fewer people drove or flew and factories belched less. Another factor could be that the moms-to-be had fewer infections generally — and thus less inflammation in their bodies — as we reduced contact with people and germs and obsessively washed hands.

But the most obvious and plausible reason appears to be that for many expecting moms, though decidedly not all, the lockdowns reduced stress. This may seem counterintuitive, because a pandemic is itself a big a stressor. Moreover, the lockdowns deprived many people of their livelihood and thus caused additional financial and even existential anxiety.

However, the pandemic and the shutdowns were not stressful for everybody. For the lucky ones, it was instead a time to slow down. People stayed at home, either working remotely or just resting, which is what pregnant women are advised to do anyway. The quotidian stressors of commuting and office life were gone. We had more opportunities to nap.

We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.

Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.


An additional factor lowering stress during pregnancy is feeling supported by partners and families. Studies have shown that the more fathers stay engaged, the better the mothers feel. And during the lockdown, the dads in their home offices had more opportunities to do just that.

Again, for some women this same situation increased stress and anguish, because the lockdowns also led to tragic epidemics of domestic violence. As I’ve said in different contexts, in April and again last month, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t just nasty, it’s also hugely unfair because it treats us all differently.

But is stress even a plausible factor with pre-term births? Maternal anxiety and depression certainly appear to hurt fetuses. Some studies suggest that “stress seems to increase the risk of pre-term birth,” while others hypothesize that early labor may even be an evolutionary adaptation in scary situations. That said, the mechanisms and details remain a mystery.

Anecdotally, however, there’s always been a link. Just think of Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher famous for his dark view of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes was born on a Friday in 1588, when his mother, only seven months pregnant, heard of the Spanish Armada, the fiercest naval war machine ever assembled, appearing off the coast of England. She was so frightened, she fell into labor immediately and, in Hobbes’s words, “fear and I were born twins together.”

We have to keep investigating the precise etiology of pre-term births, of course. But certain insights seem to be no-brainers. Pregnant women should get as much rest, and as much support from their partners, as possible. Because this is a matter of public health, employers and governments should help with generous rules about maternity and paternity leave that starts before birth.

And individually, we should apply the lessons we learned during the lockdowns: to simplify our lives, and to decelerate. Because sometimes less really is more. – Bloomberg

Also read: Parents of children forced to home-school are drinking more, US study finds


Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it

You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.

You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.

We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.

At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.

This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.

If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.

Support Our Journalism

Share Your Views


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here