Half of British women say pandemic made them change pregnancy plans

A survey of women of child-bearing age show that half who were thinking of having a baby say Covid-19 has changed their plans, according to new research from King’s College London. 

The majority of the 500 women surveyed – 72 per cent – said the pandemic had made them postpone a pregnancy because of concerns over changes to antenatal care, including having to give birth alone, although some said it had made them bring things forward. 

The research is among the first in the UK to indicate that the pandemic looks more likely to lead to less babies being born, rather than the boom that some predicted when lockdowns were first implemented. 

It follows data emerging from Europe, parts of Asia and the United States suggesting that birth rates have begun dropping nine months after the pandemic began, for example in December 2020 and January this year. In many countries, birth rates have been falling for years, but the decline post-pandemic appears steeper. 

The official UK statistics come out later this year, but most experts agree that the country is likely to follow a similar pattern. 

The new study, published in Women’s Health Reports and conducted by King’s College London, asked more than 500 women about how the pandemic had impacted their pregnancy plans.  The study group was drawn from women who were using a pre-existing online preconception health tool developed by Tommy’s and the researchers, an indication that the couples involved were previously thinking seriously about having children. 

Dr Sara White, lead author from the department of women and children’s health at King’s College London, said the team were at first “surprised” to find so many families putting off conception. 

“Particularly when this started, everyone was saying there would be a baby boom, and this is the first indication that there is possibly going to be quite a different response in our community in the UK,” she said. 

Respondents cited a number of reasons for postponing, from fears over how the virus could affect pregnant women or their babies, to concerns over pressure on the NHS. 

Many were put off by having to go to scans and give birth alone, a policy that was in place for much of last year. 

Sophie Baxter*, 41, from London, whose first child was born in October 2019, told The Telegraph that a combination of factors had been pushing her and her partner to “wait six months” for the last year, including concerns over being in hospital and the pandemic’s impact on her husband’s business. Returning to work after her first child, during lockdown – without family help or childcare – had also been “traumatising”, she said. 

“Now we sadly think it might be out of reach for us,” she said. 

Dr White said there were  practical considerations for a lot of other couples, too. 

“For example some women were unable to get their coils removed, or fertility services shut down,” she said. 

She said the decisions were all “very understandable”, stressing: “Ultimately, personal circumstances have dictated so much how people have responded to the pandemic – for everyone – and pregnancy is no different.” 

For example, parents who already had children may have had different feelings than first-time parents, she said. 

She also pointed out 28 per cent had said they had decided to try for a baby sooner than they otherwise would have during the pandemic. 

“That group were perhaps working from home, able to look after themselves, or it was something logistical,” she said. 

The data was collected in July last year, as restrictions began to ease, but before any vaccines were found to be safe and effective. 

Dr White stressed that most of the respondents were postponing, rather than cancelling entirely, their plans for children: 92 per cent ultimately still wanted to get pregnant. 

As such, she said that showed that there needed to be better plans in place to help support growing families in future, regardless of what happens with this pandemic or even the next one. 

“We need to make sure that if we are in this situation again, we can adapt to provide safe access to services and information, without putting anyone at risk,” she said. “We have learnt a lot about how to do this in the last year.”

*Some names have been changed

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