Study sug­gests fewer ba­bies born pre­ma­turely in lock­down

Uni­ver­sity Ma­ter­nity Hos­pi­tal Lim­er­ick re­ported a 73% drop in the rate of pre­ma­ture ba­bies with very low birth weight, writes An­dreas Kluth

Irish Examiner - - Analysis -

Here at last is some good news about the Covid-19 pan­demic and the whole­sale dis­rup­tion to our lives it has caused: In many places with strict lock­downs this spring, there were far fewer pre­ma­ture births than is con­sid­ered nor­mal.

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. At Uni­ver­sity Ma­ter­nity Hos­pi­tal Lim­er­ick, 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.

One rea­son to re­joice is, of course, that this means many par­ents had health­ier, hap­pier ba­bies this spring. Pre­ma­ture birth and low ges­ta­tional weight are as­so­ci­ated with var­i­ous med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions, rang­ing from cere­bral palsy or death in the worst cases to learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties or vis­ual prob­lems in later life. For ex­am­ple, it’s why Ste­vie Won­der, an Amer­i­can singer who was born six weeks early, is blind.

But the big­ger rea­son to cheer is that this phe­nom­e­non could even­tu­ally help us un­der­stand what causes pre­ma­ture birth in the first place, and thus how to pre­vent it. For now, we can only spec­u­late, as the re­searchers be­hind the Dan­ish and Ir­ish work freely ad­mit — their pa­pers haven’t yet been peer-re­viewed.

One ex­pla­na­tion for fewer pre­ma­ture births may be the de­creases in air pollu­pect­ing tion dur­ing the lock­downs, as fewer peo­ple drove or flew and fac­to­ries belched less. An­other fac­tor could be that the moth­ers-to-be had fewer in­fec­tions gen­er­ally — and thus less in­flam­ma­tion in their bod­ies — as we re­duced con­tact with peo­ple and germs and ob­ses­sively washed hands.

But the most ob­vi­ous and plau­si­ble rea­son ap­pears to be that for many ex­moth­ers, though de­cid­edly not all, the lock­downs re­duced stress.

This may seem counter-in­tu­itive, be­cause a pan­demic is it­self a big a stres­sor. More­over, the lock­downs de­prived many peo­ple of their liveli­hood and thus caused ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial and even ex­is­ten­tial anx­i­ety.

The pan­demic and the shut­downs were not stress­ful for ev­ery­body. For the lucky ones, it was 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 quo­tid­ian stres­sors of com­mut­ing and of­fice life were gone. We had more op­por­tu­ni­ties to nap.

An ad­di­tional fac­tor low­er­ing stress dur­ing preg­nancy is feel­ing sup­ported by part­ners and fam­i­lies. 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.

Again, for some women, this same sit­u­a­tion in­creased stress and an­guish, be­cause the lock­downs also led to tragic epi­demics of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Covid-19 isn’t just nasty, it’s also hugely un­fair be­cause it treats us all dif­fer­ently. But is stress even a plau­si­ble fac­tor with pre-term births? Ma­ter­nal anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion cer­tainly ap­pear to hurt foe­tuses. Some stud­ies sug­gest that “stress seems to in­crease the risk of pre-term birth”, while oth­ers hy­poth­e­sise that early labour may even be an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion in scary sit­u­a­tions. That said, the mech­a­nisms and de­tails re­main a mys­tery.

Anec­do­tally, how­ever, there’s al­ways been a link. Just think of Thomas Hobbes, the English philoso­pher fa­mous for his dark view of life be­ing “soli­tary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Hobbes was born on a Fri­day in 1588, when his mother, only seven months preg­nant, heard of the Span­ish Ar­mada, the fiercest naval war ma­chine ever as­sem­bled, ap­pear­ing off the coast of Eng­land.

She was so fright­ened that she fell into labour im­me­di­ately and, in Hobbes’ words, “fear and I were born twins to­gether”.

We have to keep in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pre­cise ae­ti­ol­ogy of pre-term births, of course. But cer­tain in­sights seem to be no-brain­ers. Preg­nant women should get as much rest, and as much sup­port from their part­ners, as pos­si­ble.

Be­cause this is a mat­ter of pub­lic health, em­ploy­ers and gov­ern­ments should help with gen­er­ous rules about ma­ter­nity and pa­ter­nity leave that starts be­fore birth.

And in­di­vid­u­ally, we should ap­ply the lessons we learned dur­ing the lock­downs: To sim­plify our lives and to de­cel­er­ate. Be­cause some­times less re­ally is more.

■ An­dreas Kluth is a colum­nist for Bloomberg Opin­ion.

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.