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Where are the Preemies?

Pandemic lockdowns saw huge decreases in babies born prematurely. There are lessons in it.
November 7, 2020

10 Minutes

A small bird in the nest on a tree.

Hospital emergency rooms, hallways and even children’s hospitals around the world are flooding with coronavirus patients as the pandemic engulfed much of the world this year. However, doctors at several hospitals scattered across the globe noticed that one ward of their facilities was conspicuously quiet: the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

NICU is usually busy with medical staff attending to the tiny preemies, doctors in Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, the US and Australia all noticed an unusual dip in the number of infants being born early. Premature birth occurs in about 11 to 13 percent of pregnancies in the US. About 1 in 10 U.S. babies is born early.

It started with doctors in Ireland and Denmark. Each team, unaware of the other’s work, crunched the numbers from its own region or country and found that during the lockdowns, premature births — especially the earliest, most dangerous cases — had plummeted. With cases being reported from different parts of the world as well, researchers now think this could be a pattern.

This is worldwide?

The trend doesn’t appear to be universal, but where it applies, the data are staggering. In Denmark, the number of babies born after less than 28 weeks of gestation — 40 weeks is the norm — dropped by 90% during the country’s month-long lockdown this spring. In one region of Ireland, the rate of preemies with very low birth weight was down by 73% between January and April compared with averages over the preceding two decades. Somewhat smaller decreases have been observed in parts of Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. Elsewhere, clinics and doctors are now scurrying to examine their own data.

What causes Preterm?

Pregnancy usually lasts about 40 weeks, and any delivery before 37 weeks is considered preterm. Most of the time, doctors don’t know why babies are born early. When they do know, it’s often because a mother has a health problem during pregnancy, such as diabetes (high blood sugar) hypertension (high blood pressure), heart or kidney problems, an infection of the amniotic membranes or vaginal or urinary tracts. Sometimes having a womb that isn’t shaped normally, carrying more than one baby (twins, triplets, or more), being underweight before pregnancy or not gaining enough weight during pregnancy, mothers who smoke, use drugs, or drink alcohol while pregnant might also have preemies. Almost 60 percent of twins, triplets, and other multiple deliveries result in preterm births.

What could explain this?

Though the exact reason behind this trend is a mystery, but some believe it could be linked to expectant mums being forced to slow down and rest – no mad supermarket dashes or runs to drop their school kids

Some even wondered if mum being able to spend more time “resting and chilling out” – something many expectant mothers often don’t have the luxury to do might be one of the factors. The pandemic and the shutdowns were stressful for everybody but for the lucky ones, it was instead a time to slow down. People stayed at home, either working remotely or just resting, which is what pregnant women are advised to do anyway. The stressors of getting dresses, commuting and office life were gone. Mum had more opportunities to nap at home.

By staying home, some pregnant women may have received more support from their families and friends as well. Studies have shown that the more fathers stay engaged, the better the mothers feel. And during the lockdown, the dads in their home offices had more opportunities to do just that. This could also have avoided infections in general, not just the new coronavirus. Research says some viruses, such as influenza, can raise the odds of premature birth. Air pollution, which has been linked to some early births, has also dropped during lockdowns as cars stayed off the roads.

Ways To Prevent Premature Labour

There are many factors that can increase a woman’s risk of experiencing premature labour. Make sure you follow these healthy habits during your gestational period and reduce your risk of premature delivery:

  • Avoid smoking and drinking while pregnant.
  • Discuss with your partner and close ones about what’s worrying you. Take professional help if need be. Remember, stress can induce premature labour.
  • Make sure that your pre-existing health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, urinary tract infections, or blood clotting issues are well-controlled during the course of pregnancy. In fact, it’s even better to keep monitoring these health conditions and keeping them in check while you are planning a family.
  • Maintain good hygiene practices to keep viral infections at bay.
  • Avoiding or at least reduce your exposure to environmental toxins and pollution

Most of the first time mothers are bombarded with tips and resources available all over the internet and are left with no idea which to choose and follow. You can find some common questions that you might have in your first trimester when you are a first time mom here. 

Hang on a minute

Although authors from different studies attributed this significant decrease in extreme preterm birth to the sum total of social and environmental changes during lockdown. They did not pinpoint one specific factor. If we are really expecting future pregnant women to stay home, not work so hard on their feet, and limit their social interaction so that we can see what might happen – it may have the exact opposite effect on their well-being. The causes of preterm birth have been volatile for decades, and ways to prevent preterm births have been largely unsuccessful. If the trends in the data are confirmed, the pandemic and lockdowns could be something like a natural experiment that might help researchers understand why premature birth happens and how to avoid it. It might suggest maybe maternity leave should start before a mother’s due date, for example.

For years, nothing has advanced in this very important area and it seems it took a virus attack to pause and make us think

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