COVID-19 pandemic may have made women think twice about expanding their families, study shows

Children's Health

Nearly half of New York City mothers who had been trying to become pregnant before the coronavirus pandemic began stopped in the first few months of the outbreak, a new study shows.

Led by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the survey of 1,179 mothers in New York City also found that one-third of people who had been thinking about becoming pregnant before the pandemic but had not yet begun trying said they were no longer considering it.

Our findings show that the initial COVID-19 outbreak appears to have made women think twice about expanding their families and in some cases reduce the number of children they ultimately intend to have. This is yet another example of the potential long-lasting consequences of the pandemic beyond the more obvious health and economic effects.”

Linda G. Kahn, PhD, MPH, study lead author and epidemiologist

Pregnancy becomes riskier and more difficult to achieve as women age, so the delays prompted by the pandemic may lead to increased health risks for both mother and child, as well as the need for costly fertility treatments to overcome age-related infertility, she adds.

Dr. Kahn, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health, notes that all of the people in the study already had at least one child age 3 or younger. As a result, it is possible that the challenges of caring for a young child during the peak of New York City’s outbreak may have played a role in their hesitancy to have another baby.

Early evidence has already identified a birthrate decline in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data showed that the country saw roughly 300,000 fewer births in 2020 than experts had expected based on annual fertility trends, with a particular drop in the last 2 months of the year, which corresponds with fewer conceptions at the beginning of the outbreak in March. However, until now, few investigations have explored the root causes behind individual parents’ decisions to delay pregnancy.

The new study, published online September 15 in the journal JAMA Network Open, is the first to examine pregnancy plans among mothers during the first wave of COVID-19 in New York City.

For the investigation, the researchers analyzed data from an ongoing pregnancy and child health study. In the survey, which collected data beginning in mid-April 2020, the mothers were asked to recall their pregnancy plans before the pandemic as well as whether they were still going forward with their plans at the time of the survey.

Among the findings, the study revealed that fewer than half of mothers who had stopped trying to become pregnant were certain they would resume trying to become pregnant once the pandemic ended, suggesting that they may abandon rather than just delay their plans to expand their families, Dr. Kahn says.

In addition, those with higher stress levels and greater financial insecurity were especially likely to postpone or end their plans for an additional child. According to the study authors, this finding highlights the importance of financial health in parents’ decisions around pregnancy and suggests that additional financial support for families may be needed to address the nation’s ongoing fertility decline, which began in 2008.

“These results emphasize the toll the coronavirus has taken not only on individual parents, but perhaps on fertility rates overall,” says study senior author and epidemiologist Melanie Jacobson, PhD, MPH.

Dr. Jacobson, a research scientist in the Division of Environmental Pediatrics at NYU Langone, cautions that the investigation only included people who were planning to have children and did not account for unplanned pregnancies.

She says the study authors next plan to repeat the survey with the same group of mothers and explore the potential impact of COVID-19 vaccination, an option not available at the time of the survey.

Journal reference:

Kahn, L.G., et al. (2021) Factors Associated With Changes in Pregnancy Intention Among Women Who Were Mothers of Young Children in New York City Following the COVID-19 Outbreak. JAMA Network Open.

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