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Recent preliminary studies by researchers in Ireland and Denmark found that the rate of preterm births declined significantly during the lockdown periods put in place in those countries because of the pandemic. In Denmark, for example, the rate of babies born before 28 weeks dropped a dramatic 90 percent during the country's strictest lockdown period between March 12 and April 14, one study showed.
Doctors in some other hospitals around the world – including in Australia and the United States – have anecdotally reported similar declines. At Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, in Nashville, neonatologist Stephen Patrick estimated there were 20 percent fewer babies than normal in the neonatal intensive care unit in March.
What could be behind these reported drops?
First, it's important to note that the studies on this topic so far have not been peer reviewed, and the rest of the information is anecdotal, so more research is needed to determine if this is truly a valid phenomenon. Also, not all hospitals are reporting a drop in preterm births. That said, many experts agree the topic is worthy of further investigation and could potentially hold some important clues for understanding and preventing preterm births.
While no one can definitively explain why the pandemic might be affecting preterm birth rates, here are some of the hypotheses put forward:
- Pregnant women may be getting more rest. Women who are working from home or not working at all because of the pandemic might be getting more sleep and more support from their families. (Although presumably, the pandemic has made life more stressful for some women who may have lost income or be stuck at home trying to work and look after children at the same time.)
- Pregnant women may be getting fewer infections. Staying at home could mean women are less likely to get exposed to viruses such as the flu, which can increase the risk of preterm delivery.
- Pregnant women may be exposed to less air pollution. Polluted air has been linked to preterm birth. Fewer people are driving during the pandemic, which has led to less vehicle exhaust fumes and cleaner air in some places.
Preterm birth is common in the United States, affecting about 1 in 10 babies. Babies are considered preterm when they're born before 37 weeks. These babies can suffer long-term health and developmental problems. So any advances in understanding what causes premature birth could ultimately be a big win for families and babies.
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