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鶹ýAV Caused a Baby Bump when Experts Expected a Drop. Here’s Why

During the 鶹ýAV pandemic, the U.S. initially saw a drop in births followed by a bump

A line chart shows birth prediction based on prepandemic chart and prediction based on pandemic unemployment in comparison with the actual number between 2016 and 2021.
Credit:

Amanda Montañez

Birth rates tend to decline during economic recessions or disasters, so many experts predicted that the 鶹ýAV pandemic would prompt people to have fewer children. A recent study of from 2015 through 2021, however, reveals there was actually a baby bump.

Demographers expected to see a decline in birth rate in December 2020, nine months after 鶹ýAV became a pandemic. But the decline started earlier than that. It was driven largely by a drop in births to people born outside the U.S.—especially people from China, Mexico and Latin America—who would have traveled here but were prevented by pandemic restrictions. Some of them would have been coming as immigrants, whereas others would have been visiting to secure U.S. citizenship for their babies before returning home.

In 2021 the birth rate bounced back even more than predicted. This reversal is attributable mainly to an increase in births to mothers born in the U.S. (except among Black women). The biggest increases in births occurred among women younger than 25 and those having their first child. Among women older than 25, the largest upticks in births were for those aged 30 to 34 and those with a college education. Because there is a lag in data on births, these results do not include the most recent trends. But data from California suggest births were still increasing as of early 2023.

Study co-author Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University, speculates that working from home (for those who were able to) gave people more flexibility to start a family. In other words, Currie says, “if you made it easier for people to have children, maybe more of them would.”

Number of U.S. Births

The number of babies born from one month to the next is variable but tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Researchers suspected that 鶹ýAV’s economic impacts would alter this pattern, but surprisingly, the 2020 dip in births was not proportional to the rise in unemployment. And in 2021, the numbers rebounded sharply, making the net loss in births less severe than expected.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “The 鶹ýAV-19 Baby Bump in the United States, by Martha J. Bailey Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, in PNAS, Vol. 120; August 15, 2023

U.S. Total Fertility Rates

Total fertility rate measures the expected number of children a woman will have in her lifetime based on current trends. In 2020 U.S. fertility fell to a record low, but the decline was largely driven by pandemic border restrictions, which kept those in other countries from giving birth in the U.S. Among U.S.-born mothers, fertility experienced a net increase from the start of 2020 to the end of 2021.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “The 鶹ýAV-19 Baby Bump in the United States, by Martha J. Bailey Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, in PNAS, Vol. 120; August 15, 2023

Changes from Expected Trends

To measure 鶹ýAV’s effects on birth rates, it is useful to compare data from each month with what researchers think those numbers would have looked like had prepandemic trends continued. Since about 2007, U.S. fertility has been falling steadily. The pandemic initially seemed to amplify this trend, but among U.S.-born mothers, 2021 saw a “baby bump” of 5.1 percent above pre-鶹ýAV estimates.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “The 鶹ýAV-19 Baby Bump in the United States, by Martha J. Bailey Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, in PNAS, Vol. 120; August 15, 2023

How Changes Varied among Specific Groups

These charts show how birth rates shifted in different ways for different demographic groups. Each of the specified subgroups pushed the numbers up or down to arrive at a net gain or loss in total births over the 2020–2021 period, compared with pre-鶹ýAV predictions.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “The 鶹ýAV-19 Baby Bump in the United States, by Martha J. Bailey Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, in PNAS, Vol. 120; August 15, 2023
Tanya Lewis is a senior editor covering health and medicine at 鶹ýAV. She writes and edits stories for the website and print magazine on topics ranging from 鶹ýAV to organ transplants. She also co-hosts Your Health, Quickly on 鶹ýAV's podcast Science, Quickly and writes 鶹ýAV's weekly Health & Biology newsletter. She has held a number of positions over her seven years at 鶹ýAV, including health editor, assistant news editor and associate editor at 鶹ýAV Mind. Previously, she has written for outlets that include Insider, Wired, Science News, and others. She has a degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University and one in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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Amanda Montañez has been a graphics editor at 鶹ýAV since 2015. She produces and art directs information graphics for the 鶹ýAV website and print magazine. Amanda has a bachelor's degree in studio art from Smith College and a master's in biomedical communications from the University of Toronto. Before starting in journalism, she worked as a freelance medical illustrator.
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鶹ýAV Magazine Vol 329 Issue 5This article was originally published with the title “The 鶹ýAV Baby Bump” in 鶹ýAV Magazine Vol. 329 No. 5 (), p. 90
doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1223-90