Late last summer, Jacqueline Lane found out that she was pregnant after five years of trying. She credits getting to share more downtime with her husband. “We made our backyard a sanctuary,” she says of their downtown Toronto home.
At the three-month mark, Lane, a creative director with a branding agency, called one of her closest friends, saying, “I’ve got good news.” The friend replied, “So do I.” Their babies were both due on the same day. Lane soon found out that many in her extended social, work, and family circles were pregnant. “It wasn’t even exciting news to anyone,” she says. “When we told people, they were like, ‘Join the line.’”
There were other signs that made Lane suspect she may be part of a broader trend: she put herself on numerous wait-lists for a midwife before getting one, and, when shopping for baby gear, she and her husband, Adrian Forrow, had to wait months, as much of it was on back order. When their son, Levi, arrived this past May, their midwife warned them that the maternity ward had been packed of late; luckily, Lane was able to get a bed at Mount Sinai Hospital on a quiet Sunday morning. It then took Lane dozens of calls to secure Levi a pediatrician.
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While some of Lane’s challenges can be traced to pandemic-related global-supply-chain shortages and an ongoing dearth of midwives and doctors, some experts say a possible recent baby boom in Ontario may also play a role.
Earlier in the pandemic, there was something of a baby bust. While Ontario’s birth rate grew in 2020, climbing 1.3 per cent in the final months of 2020 before nearly stalling at 0.9 per cent growth in the first quarter of 2021, Quebec’s births were down 3 per cent in 2020, and Canada’s declined 0.73 per cent (the U.S.’s rate tumbled 4.3 per cent). A University of Michigan study published in June used mathematical modelling to predict that the drop in conceptions after the March 2020 lockdowns would be followed by a birth surge in summer 2021. “Previous large societal disruptions in the U.S., such as the 1918 H1N1 Influenza pandemic, Great Depression (1929) and Great Recession (2008) have influenced population growth and fertility rate,” the authors wrote.
The Ontario experience could be bearing that out. Preliminary 2021 data from Better Outcomes Registry & Network Ontario show that births in the province bottomed out in December 2020 and January 2021 but have been soaring of late, with about 500 more babies born in June 2021 compared to that month a year before. “Beginning in March of 2021 … we’re seeing an increase in the number of births,” the organization writes on its website.
A number of hospitals in the province reported more births in late spring and summer. (Media reports show similar trends in such places as Texas and Germany.) McMaster Children’s Hospital, in Hamilton, has experienced a 13 per cent increase in births this year compared to the same time last year — and a 19 per cent rise over 2019. “We’re seeing unprecedented volume for us,” says Kelly Falzon, director of women’s and newborn’s health for Hamilton Health Sciences. “The last time I saw a surge like this was after the big blackout” of August 2003.
And McMaster Children’s Hospital isn’t alone: London Health Sciences Centre recorded a 10 per cent increase in July 2021 compared to the same month last year and a 5 per cent year-over-year rise in August.
Not all signs, though, point to an ongoing baby boom. Other centres, such as the Ottawa Hospital, didn’t see a jump in births this spring or summer. A spokesperson for Mount Sinai Hospital told TVO.org via email that their data “does not indicate any increase in births from 2020.” And Jasmin Tecson, a midwife and the president of the Association of Ontario Midwives, says a spike in demand for home births her colleagues saw early in the pandemic due to fear of contracting COVID-19 has now settled. (It was quite a dramatic birth trend in itself: 430 home births in Ontario in May 2020 compared to 286 in the same month a year before.) As midwives take on a set number of patients at a time, the only way to assess demand is to look at wait-lists. “What we’re seeing right now is roughly the same as pre-pandemic,” she says.
Roderic Beaujot, professor emeritus of sociology at Western University, thinks any baby boom would be short-lived. “I would guess that the extra births that hospitals are seeing would be those who were delaying and decided some nine or 10 months ago to go back to their original intention,” he says. “I doubt we’ll see much rise in the overall birth rate, even for 2021.” Most women today will aim to have two children, one, or none, he adds; the pandemic hasn’t changed social and economic factors sufficiently to alter that. And, if people put off babies for even a few months, that can actually lower the birth rate. “We know from the data over time that some don’t catch up afterwards,” he says, as breakups, job changes, and fertility decline can occur in the gap. (While Lane speculates that the less hectic nature of pandemic life may have helped her fertility, the other new parents she knows did not time their babies around COVID-19, she says.)
Falzon and her colleagues have some theories about why McMaster Children’s Hospital has seen more births. First, many people are moving from Toronto to Hamilton. “There might be a greater affordability of housing as you head out of the GTA,” she says. “People are moving our way.” She also wonders whether people who paused baby plans recently realized there’s simply no perfect time. “Those who were delaying, thinking there might be better times ahead, now they’re thinking maybe this is the better time ahead.”
For those giving birth this year — and for those teams attending to them — the process is more challenging than in non-pandemic times. During a health scare early in her pregnancy, Lane had to wait in triage at Mount Sinai for 12 hours and was not permitted to raise her mask to eat or drink. During her labour, she had to wear a mask, although she pulled it down during the gruelling final stages. Fear of contracting the virus is real for many parents-to-be: Lane and her husband had each had just one vaccine shot by the time Levi was born.
For health-care workers, the combination of additional infection-control rules, staff shortages, general burnout, and extra stressors — such as anti-vax demonstrations outside hospitals — has made their jobs harder. “There is a continued stress and effort from working in the pandemic,” Tecson says.” The people I speak to feel worse this year than they did in the early days of the pandemic.”
Falzon says that the extra volume at McMaster Children’s Hospital has also contributed to a tougher work situation. “To be very honest, it’s been stressful on the teams. We’re all so burnt out: doctors, midwives and nurses,” she says, adding that staff nevertheless work hard to protect the birth experience for patients: “Having a baby is one of the most important times in their lives; we want to preserve the joy in that experience.”
Despite the challenges of pandemic births, Falzon remains convinced that a baby boom — even if it’s just a localized blip — is good news. “I think it speaks well of society for the future,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful that people have been growing their families regardless of how uncertain the future is.”