Why COVID-19 couldn’t deliver a ‘baby boom’

Hala Safar holds her newborn son, Christian Ryan Mebarkeh, as the boy’s father, Raed Mebarkeh, kisses him. Christian was the first baby born at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in 2019. While there was speculation that all the time indoors might have led to a quarantine-related baby boom, the data demonstrated that wasn’t really the case. Signal photo
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COVID-19 changed the world like few events in recent memory, and prompted tons of speculation about the potential for a “baby boom,” due to the number of couples together with little in the ways of options for things to do.

The reality, however, according to a number of experts, is that the number of “quarantine babies” was actually fewer than in recent years. 

“Some people said, ‘Aha! All these folks are going to be at home and have nothing better to do but make babies,” said Dowell Myers, a professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. “Of course, that was not their mood at all … there’s never been a rise in birth rate because of a disaster. Like I said, that’s just an urban legend.”

Local  

There was definitely no baby boom at Henry Mayo, according to local hospital officials. 

“Our volume of births was strong prior to the pandemic, particularly in the months after we opened our new Center for Women and Newborns, and has remained strong throughout the pandemic, but we have yet to see a notable increase in births,” said Lori Matzner, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital’s director of maternal and child health services.  “It’s difficult to project what the next few months will bring, although national projections call for a slight decline in births overall.”

Overall, Matzner said the local hospital had seen huge differences in the ways in which babies were born over the course of the pandemic. 

“The big difference, of course, was the limitation on visitors due to COVID-19 (one partner or coach per patient, recently raised to two visitors per patient),” said Matzner. “Also, for women coming to Henry Mayo to deliver who tested positive for COVID-19, we were fortunate to have space that allowed us to set up a separate, isolated unit for these patients.”

National Baby Boom?

While Santa Clarita’s local hospital may not have changed much in terms of the number of babies they delivered over the past year, the care center appears to have been an anomaly.

California experienced a 10% dip in births in the month of December in 2020, which would have given enough time for babies to have been born given that the stay-at-home order for the state was issued March 19, according to Robert Wonser, a sociologist at College of the Canyons.

“If you’re at that age where you’re thinking about having kids, there’s uncertainty, maybe from not having a job, and there’s all these sorts of insecurities that come along with a global pandemic,” said Wonser. It’s not exactly easy to get into the mood under such conditions, and there’s also a concern about the environment for the child.

“So, with all that stuff going on, you’re going to see a decline,” said Wonser. 

Both Myers and Wonser agreed that while the internet and non-expert pundit culture liked to joke about the potential for a baby boom last year, historical events, such as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the 1977 blackout in New York, did not result in baby booms.

“People don’t have babies unless they’re optimistic about the future,” said Myers. “They have to have a sense that ‘I have a paycheck; I have a place to live’ and they have a sense that the country will survive the disaster. And so, we’ve had really bullish periods, the 1950’s are very strong.” 

Myers added that for the past number of years, following the Great Recession and the last two administrations, optimism continued to decrease, and affordability for younger generations to start families became more and more difficult to attain.

“Affording rents, affording homes to buy, pessimistic about the career outlook, their student loan debt,” said Meyers. “All of those are things that have been waying more and more heavily on young adults.” 

Chance of recovery?   

However, Meyers noted, all that doesn’t mean we might not still see a baby boom somewhat influenced by the current environment.

“There was a lot of negativity that young people were taking the brunt of,” said Meyers. “But young people seem to be quite happy with the new mood in the country. But also, there will be an economic revival and everything lines up positive for not a surging number, but it’s going to be 10% higher than it was before the pandemic.”

Meyers used the example of the Roaring 1920s that had followed the 1918 pandemic and World War I, a period of technological and social change, euphoria in the stock market and there was a catchup in the early part of the decade for the next five years. 

However, while admitting there were some parallels between the two, he said the situation in America is different than it was then and that does not mean it will necessarily follow the same pattern. He said the child credit benefit for kids, along with other additives being posed for young families by the new presidential administration, could aid in the decision to start having children or have more children, but it still remains hard for the current generation of young people to have kids.  

Matzner noted that there had been an “exuberance to be alive” in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s — both of which led to relative booms in the number of children born. But he also agreed with Meyers that context was important, and trends over the last decade show people having kids and committing to marriages later in their lives change how we can perceive if there will be a recovery.  

“So, there’s sort of an underlying current that woven throughout our discussion that are these births just being delayed, or are these births that will now never happen?” said Matzner. “And that’s an interesting question because nobody can say for sure, but I would suspect that there will be some births that never happened that otherwise would have.”  

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