Cheshire might be about to see a post-lockdown baby bust.
It’s too early to tell how many babies will be born following the lockdowns in 2020, as the latest figures on births only cover up to December last year – nine months after the first lockdown began.
However, figures published by NHS Digital show a falling number of women had been for their first antenatal appointment during that nine months.
The number of women attending a booking appointment at providers covering Cheshire fell to 8,130 between March and December 2020, down from 8,935 in the same months in 2019.
The booking appointment is the first appointment with a midwife and usually takes place when a woman is between eight and 12 weeks pregnant.
The number of appointments recorded in March to December 2020 is also lower than the figure for the same months in 2018, when there were 8,285 appointments.
The fall in the number of women making appointments was all in the second half of the year.
While numbers were similar to 2019 between January and June, they dropped 20% year-on-year between July and September and 11% between October and December.
Some of the fall in 2020 may be down to women heading for their appointment later than they have previously.
The proportion of booking appointments happening in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy fell from 62% in 2019 to 58% in 2020.
Across England, figures suggest the first lockdown may have led to fewer women getting pregnant, but numbers potentially rose as restrictions eased.
The number of women booking their first antenatal appointment dropped by 10% in May 2020, compared to the same month in 2019.
Numbers were similar to 2019 in June but dropped again in July and August, rose in September, then fell again in October.
Some of this monthly variation may be down to women having appointments earlier than in previous years – the proportion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy rose from 58% in March to 62% in April and has stayed above 60% through the rest of 2020.
Looking at the figures on a quarterly basis (to try to smooth out some of that variation) shows quarter on quarter falls from the three months to June through to the three months through to October.
However, in the three months to December, there was a 4% rise in booking appointments compared to 2019.
This may mean that women put off pregnancies during the March to July lockdown until restrictions eased in the summer and autumn.
The closure of fertility clinics during the first lockdown may also have had an impact on the number of women getting pregnant.
Variations in the numbers may also reflect changes in how pregnant women accessed care during the pandemic.
Dr Jo Mountfield, consultant obstetrician and Vice President at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey we conducted of obstetric units in the UK found that 70% of obstetric units reported a reduction in antenatal appointments and most units (86%) reported a reduction in emergency antenatal presentations.
“This data suggested women may have delayed seeking care during the first wave, and this could have been for a number of reasons including confusion around whether these appointments are essential, fear of attending a hospital or not wanting to burden the NHS.
“More recently, we haven’t heard about a reduction in booking appointments for maternity services. There is population data to suggest that more generally birth rates are falling across the UK but with regional variation.”
Across England and Wales, the number of babies born has been falling for the last few years.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, there were 640,370 live births in 2019, a decrease of 3% since 2018 and a 12% decrease since the most recent peak in 2012.
The 2020 figures, based on registered births, won’t be updated until later this year, and the impact of lockdowns on births in 2021 won’t be known for even longer.
Scotland, which releases data on birth registrations monthly, saw an 18% year-on-year decrease in births registered in January this year. Figures had been similar for December, while February’s figures were down 4%.
However, as the data is based on when births are registered not when they take place, figures may be impacted by lockdown measures in place during the early part of 2021.
The maternity figures from NHS Digital show the number of births rose towards the end of last year, with 42,640 recorded in December, up from 40,585 in November.
However, the figures are experimental and the increase may reflect better recording as well as any changes in the number of births and the impact of the pandemic.
Dr Mountfield said: “Like all areas of NHS care, maternity services have been affected by the pandemic but units are working to ensure services are provided in a way that is safe, with the levels of staff that are needed and the ability to provide emergency care where necessary.
“We want to stress that maternity services are open and the NHS has made arrangements to ensure that women are supported and cared for safely through pregnancy, birth and the period afterwards during this pandemic.
“The maternity services monthly statistics cover all births in the NHS, not just hospital births. During the pandemic, some Trusts and boards in the UK have had to pause their home birth service or close their midwife-led unit.
“We understand this must be a stressful and anxious time if you are pregnant and due to give birth in the coming months. Maternity units have been working to manage additional pressures and facilitate women’s choices.”
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