Health

So, Is a Pandemic Baby Boom Actually Coming?

At the beginning of the pandemic, people predicted we'd see *a lot* of babies in nine months—but it now looks like the opposite may be true

Raise your hand if at least two people you know have announced they’re expecting amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Raise your hand again, if, even if someone you *personally* know hasn’t made the exciting announcement, it feels like every single celebrity has? From Emily Ratajkowski and Hilary Duff’s recent bump reveals to Cosmopolitan Beauty Director Julee Wilson’s announcement that she and her husband literally made baby number two to the sweet, sweet sounds of a D-Nice Instagram Live set, it feels like legitimately everyone is preggo. And the aphrodisiac has been quarantine. But, then again, we predicted this.

In March of this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was really taking off in North America, many people both online and IRL began joking that with everyone sheltering in place, more time at home with partners would lead to a spike in births nine months down the line. (What else is there to do once your sourdough starter is in the oven and your Zoom cocktail hour is done?)

So, seven months out from the internet’s predictions, we have to ask: Is that pandemic baby boom *actually* coming? The answer, surprisingly, is…probably not. While anecdotally it may seem like everyone you know is making the decision to get pregnant during the pandemic, statistically it turns out that people have actually been getting *less* busy—or at least have been extra careful about using contraception while getting frisky over the past several months.

According to a June 15 paper released by Washington, DC-based The Brookings Institute—and based on economic studies of fertility behaviour as well as data presented from the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and the 1918 Spanish Flu, which saw a downturn in birth rates—COVID-19 will lead to what the institute calls “a large, lasting baby bust,” with the paper predicting that there’ll be between 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in the United States in 2021.

“As economists, we focus on the underlying decisions that drive behaviours and ultimately outcomes, including having children,” the paper notes. “It is important to recognize the critical role that economic conditions play in fertility choices.” Which makes sense, considering that the pregnancy announcements we’re currently being inundated with are mostly from celebs, who arguably aren’t feeling the financial burden of the pandemic in the same way us regular people are. (Need we remind you of KKW’s recent display of what “normal” life looks like for her inner circle?)

And while experts say that Canada won’t see as steep of a birthrate decline as our neighbours to the south (this is due to our overall smaller population but also the fact that the pandemic has been managed differently in both countries), a 2020 survey by Leger has found that about three in four (76%) of millennial Canadian women (between the ages 18 and 40) who’ve used contraception in the past six months, say it’s now more important than ever to prevent an unplanned pregnancy—meaning Canadian women are taking control of their reproductive decisions now more than possibly ever.

ICYMI, people were predicting that there would be a massive baby boom—and it made logical sense

While jokes about an uptick in baby making were meant to be funny, at the time it also seemed plausible. While experts say that the way people’s libidos react to stressful situations really varies depending on the individual, with some people’s sex drives going down during stressful periods, like say, a pandemic; the reality is that, in times of stress, some people actually do engage in sex more, as means of coping. “For some people, heightened stress will heighten their arousal response,” Canadian sex and relationships researcher Dr. Kristen Mark, director of the sexual health promotion lab at the University of Kentucky told FLARE in an April 2020 interview. “In times of uncertainty, it can be helpful to experience the calming effect that sexual arousal and orgasm has.” This phenomenon has even been dubbed as the “apocalyptic hornies” by Men’s Health.

Horniness aside, there are several *other* reasons we imagine people may be deciding to go ahead with their family planning during the pandemic. With our lives effectively put on hold over the past eight months, with stalls in travel, relationships and career, it’s safe to say that for many people their carefully planned timelines have been thrown for a loop. With that in mind, it’s not farfetched to think that perhaps those who were putting off having children due to career and travel goals would decide to throw caution to the wind and have a baby now, while we’re not able to really do anything else. Because honestly, what even is a timeline anymore?

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But the tanking economy has created a different reality

While the recent stats from Leger may come as a shock to some, we shouldn’t actually be that surprised that people are more heavily weighing their contraception options and their decision to have kids. Because there’s a lot to be uncertain about at the moment. Namely, the economy. According to Statistics Canada, the national unemployment rate almost doubled between February and April (the heart of the pandemic in North America), landing at a staggering 13.7%. With service industry professionals largely out of work due to the shut down of non-essential services, many Canadians took a large economic hit thanks to the pandemic. While it’s important to note that as of September there has been a recoup of lost jobs in Canada, with the pandemic still ongoing into the winter—and recent rollbacks in provinces like Ontario—there’s still a lot of job instability and uncertainty across numerous industries.

“I wasn’t surprised by that statistic,” Dr. Kristina Dervaitis an Ontario-based OBGYN and contraception specialist says of Canadian millennial women hoping to postpone unwanted pregnancies. “Of course there’s never a good time for an unplanned pregnancy, but particularly during a pandemic when there’s so much uncertainty, patients are looking to make sure that they’re in control of their reproductive futures and their lives.”

Lack of regular access to healthcare is another factor in the decision to delay

In addition to families’ uncertain economic situations as well as fluctuating job security, Dervaitis points to limited healthcare access as another reason some people are delaying getting pregnant. “Whether [a pregnancy] continues to term or whether or not a patient decides to terminate a pregnancy, having access to those services that are necessary became limited during the lockdown portions of the pandemic,” she says. (In fact, for a large portion of the pandemic, people giving birth in many Canadian hospitals had to do so alone and while wearing a mask, due to restrictions around COVID).

Not to mention the fact that, as she says, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to access to healthcare in the future, as COVID continues to place a strain on our healthcare system. “There aren’t any sort of warning bells to say that we should be advising patients not to get pregnant during the pandemic, but there are obviously still question marks that we’re trying to answer about the effect of COVID on the pregnant woman and on developing fetus. So lots of uncertainties; so now more than ever I’m seeing my patients, say ‘I don’t want to have an unplanned pregnancy during this pandemic and how can you prevent this?'”

In fact, Dervaitis says that a significant change she’s seen in some patients when it comes to contraception is the decision to seek out more long-acting reversible contraception, like IUDs—which provide contraception coverage for five years and are in essence, “pandemic proof.”

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“Patients are really drawn to that sort of long-term control,” she says. “Five years of worry-free contraception. Once an IUD is inserted, there’s not really anything to remember to do each day, which is why it is one of the most effective contraceptive options available at a less than 1% chance of pregnancy.” And, as it is reversible, IUDs (some of which can provide coverage up to 10 years), can be removed anytime, meaning “that patient has control over her reproductive future and can remove an IUD at any time and go forth and start trying to conceive right in the next cycle without any concern for future fertility.”

Another reason patients may turn to this type of longterm, reversible contraception is due to accessibility, especially in comparison to other means like monthly birth control pills. “Typically in the past patients would would get a prescription [for birth control pills] for three months at a time,” Dervaitis says. “During crops of the pandemics,  several pharmacies elected to dispense only one month at a time for fear of future drug shortages; which again is a potential concern in terms of access and keeping oneself covered from a contraception standpoint.” (Cutting back on visits to the pharmacy also cuts back on risks of exposure to COVID-19, Dervaitis notes.)

For some, there are other milestones that need to come first—and those have been postponed

Like many of Dervaitis’s patients, 31-year-old Amanda Bernardo also decided to delay her decision to have kids due to the pandemic. While Bernardo says there was a definite boom in pregnancies among her own friend group, with four friends due at the end of 2020 and six due in 2021, the Ottawa-based woman and her partner of nine years decided to postpone their family planning journey because it’s directly tied to their *other* decision to cancel their October 24 wedding ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m Catholic, so just based on my religion I want to get married first in order to start moving ahead with family planning,” Bernardo says. When the pandemic first started making waves in North America, back in March of this year, Bernardo says that she and her fiancé—like many people—didn’t think it would affect their planned October wedding in Burlington, Ont. (Remember when everyone thought quarantine was only going to last two weeks? Simpler times). “I was holding on to the very last minute before I needed a decision to postpone,” she says. The couple made a back-up plan for their wedding in April, but with the pandemic seemingly only ramping up, and with Bernardo’s extended family in Italy planning to fly in for the wedding, “[we] pulled the plug in July because our hall and our vendors needed at least three months notice.” The couple have postponed their nuptials until August 2021.

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Bernardo’s decision to postpone her wedding—and inevitable family planning—is complicated due to her health. She was diagnosed with endometriosis and PCOS when she was 25–something she’s written about extensively on a blog; a diagnosis that means Bernardo has to actively come off her medication (it helps with pain management) in order to re-start her period and which also means she could potentially have difficulties conceiving. These are all factors she’s taken into making her decision to postpone her wedding.

“When I was first diagnosed I was very, very depressed because I was 25 and was being hit with the information that [I] might not be able to conceive and all these different problems and challenges could arise,” she says. “And so that’s still with me today; and I think it’s really hard to plan and to even think about having a baby with so much uncertainty, compounded by COVID-19. It was really difficult to imagine moving forward.” While Bernardo says part of her does wish she’d just gone ahead and had a small civil ceremony—and then planed a big party with her extended family after COVID—so that they could move forward with her pregnancy journey, another part of her is nervous about starting to try to conceive before the big wedding in case her complications cause her to feel unwell. “If [the pregnancy] journey was not easy, I also want to be happy on my wedding day,” she says. “And I knew how impacted I was from my original diagnosis, [so] if I had to start IVF or if there were complications, I didn’t want to have to have that in the back of my head on my wedding day. I really wanted that to be a happy time in my life.”

And as for what will happen if COVID-19 continues on the same track, postponing the big wedding Bernardo wants even further? “We made the decision we would postpone only once, and that would be it,” she says. “If thing’s don’t look like they’re improving, we’ll just go ahead with the small wedding and call it a day,” she continues. “That decision is very much related to family planning; I’m 31 right now, I turn 32 in July, so I don’t want to keep waiting and delaying my life.”

For others, the impact of the pandemic is indeed speeding things up

Ashlyn and Alison Remillard know the challenges of bringing a young child into the world during the time of COVID. The couple, who work and live in Atlanta, Georgia have an almost one-year-old son, Nash, who was born in November 2019. “We were actually just coming out of maternity leave when the pandemic hit,” Ashlyn says. Back to work in their respective fields  for only two weeks, the couple, who recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary, were using a nanny as they waited to get a spot in an extremely competitive daycare. When everything shut down, the couple were left without any childcare. “We were raising a four-month-old while working two full-time jobs and lots of video conferences and just [were] sort of two ships passing in the night,” Alison says. The lack of help took a toll on them.  “My family is based in San Diego and they haven’t been able to even see Nash since December [2019],” Alison says, pointing to how the community aspect of parenting is completely gone during the pandemic. “That’s a really hard part about parenting during the time of COVID when you’re trying to be as safe as possible for yourself and  your little ones, it makes it really hard to have that community as the parents.”

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Still, taking all these challenges into account, the Remillards have actually *accelerated* their decision to have a second child. As a same-sex couple in their mid and late thirties who have chosen to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) (Alison carried Nash via IUI and the plan is for Ashlyn to carry their second, using the same sperm donor, via IVF), the pair knew that age was always going to be a factor to consider when trying to conceive, and it’s the reason why they decided 39-year-old Alison, as the eldest of the couple, would carry their first child, Nash. It’s also why they they then decided that 34-year-old Ashlyn would use IVF. “When we were putting our plan together, knowing that Alison was going to go first  based on her age, we wanted to take the IVF approach for my body so that hopefully we would be able to freeze eggs, knowing that age is such a large factor in women’s fertility.”

In February of this year, Ashlyn began her first IVF cycle (the process through which Ashlyn takes injections and doctors would look to retrieve an egg from her body to be fertilized). But the retrieval was cancelled due to COVID. The couple say that when they initially started the process, they felt they were early, with Nash only a few months old. “[But] then just psychologically being told ‘no’ [and] having that cycle cancelled [as well as] the lack of information around fertility that we had, we started to panic a little bit,” Ashlyn says. “Like look at all this time that we’re wasting, we’re only getting older as this [pandemic] goes on.”

So once services and clinics re-opened over the summer, the Remillards dove right back into the process. “I think ultimately the pandemic allowed us the opportunity to speed up,” Ashlyn says. Specifically, she says, the work-from-home set-up allowed the couple to attend the numerous medical appointments required when going through an IVF cycle. “In a traditional working environment, if you’re going into an office every day, that would make [these appointments] really challenging.”

“So while we were put on hold in the beginning part of the pandemic, we were able to pick back up once things started to open up a little bit more,” Ashlyn says. In June, the couple had their first egg retrieval.

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Regardless of whether individuals plan to move forward with growing their families, in much the same way that young people have started factoring issues like climate change into their decision to have children, the pandemic has emphasized one important point: The decision to bring a child into the world—especially the world we’re currently living in, with a burning climate,  rampant racism and medical uncertainty—is complicated. “The decision to have a child and to bring a life into this world is not to be taken lightly whether or not in a pandemic or just in general in 2020, without considering the pandemic,” Dervaitis says. “As life gets more complex, patients are thankfully putting more thought into their childbearing and their reproductive futures. The pandemic adds yet one more thing to consider in the very complex decision making process and the tremendous responsibility of bringing that child into the world.”