Pandemic baby bust? California sees 23% decline in births

California

(KTXL) — With much of the state locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic, many figured a baby boom was on the horizon, but new data shows the opposite.

For Dorthy Robinson, 2020 was supposed to be a year of growth. 

“Business-wise, I did want to expand into a bigger retail space, maybe have multiple rooms,” Robinson said.

She was also eyeing an expansion on the family front. 

“I have a son. He’s two and a half, and we were planning to have a two and a half year age gap between them,” she said.

Then came March — in like a lion and out like an even bigger lion. 

“Once COVID happened, we kind of just put our plans on the back burner,” Robinson said. “Babysitting changed and finances changed, so we said we’ll focus on our single son before we get a newborn.”

Early data suggests a lot of California women may have had the same idea. In January 2021, 10 months after Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order, there were 23% fewer babies born in California than in January 2019.

For Robinson, putting off the baby was a solid plan, but life had other plans. In August, she learned she was pregnant.

“I talk a lot about it,” obstetrician Dr. Kathleen Rooney said, referring to COVID-19 and pregnancy. 

Last spring, Dr. Rooney’s gynecologist’s practice temporarily closed to all non-emergency appointments except birth control and prenatal visits. Rooney herself gave birth during the pandemic.

She says her expecting patients had a lot of the same questions she did.

“If there would be higher risk of serious illness with pregnancy, whether the baby would be affected, lot of questions and concerns about the delivery experience in and of itself,” she said.

The non-pregnant women seemed to be focused on keeping it that way, asking about birth control like IUDs and implants.

“I seemed like a lot of my patients were requesting forms of contraceptive that are longer lasting and very reliable,” Rooney said.

Economists at The Brookings Institution predict 300,000 fewer babies born in 2021. However, it will take a while to see if that proves true.

Only a handful of states including Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming and Iowa have published birth data for January 20201 and/or December 2020. 

In most cases, those states show drops in births that are notable according to Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland.

“They’re showing declines in the neighborhood of 5-10% which is really pretty big in historical terms”, says Cohen. “The shocking number was California.”

Cohen says it’s difficult drawing conclusions from that partial, preliminary data.

“It’s always a little bit tricky when we have partial data so for example if a lot of people left California  then we might see fewer births or if immigration basically stops,” Cohen said. “We can’t nail that down until we can look at all the places and see if the births are showing up somewhere else.”

Still, he feels this much is becoming clear.

“The planned birth people are making decisions to postpone, to wait, and the unplanned birth people are maybe just getting out less, seeing their partners less,” he said.

Thirty-Four percent of American women reported wanting to delay having children or have fewer children because of the pandemic, according to a May survey by the Guttmacher Institute

In November, Modern Fertility asked the question, showing 30% of women changed pregnancy plans due to the pandemic. Of them, nearly half said they chose to delay. Almost a third said they changed their mind about having children all together.

Cohen says these attitudes reflect the reality of the shutdown for some as not just a pause in normal life, but an upheaval of it.

“They lose jobs, they lose housing or healthcare, they have to move, they can’t move, all the things that sort of go into life advances get put on hold and when we see that happen in when we see birthrates in the year or so after start to decline,” said Cohen. 

Cohen points out it’s not unusual for birth rates to drop in times of turmoil such as wars, depressions and the 1918 flu pandemic.

“After the Great Recession, fertility rates fell and never really rebounded, so a rebound is not a given but I would like to think we could have something like a Roaring ‘20s,” he said.

Meanwhile, Robinson is now managing everything she was trying to avoid with a pandemic pregnancy. Her income took a major hit, she’s had to change health insurance several times, and while she’s happy to see clients again after being forced to close most of last year, a concern over exposure to the virus.

“There is always that concern for how much exposure I’m putting myself through”, she said.

But there’s also the excitement of getting that year of growth after all.

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