10th August 2021
This discovery could save lives as pre-term births are the leading cause of neonatal mortality.
Pre-term deliveries have reduced by 10 percent in Western European countries since the start of the pandemic, according to a review article published in The Lancet Global Health Journal one year after the UK’s first stay at home mandate was ordered.
The review, led by a team at St George’s University of London, analysed 40 papers from 17 different countries to identify the collateral effects seen in maternity healthcare since the COVID-19 pandemic commenced.
Several large studies in the review reported local decreases to pre-term birth, specifically in high income countries like the UK, and are thought to be attributed to population behavioural changes caused by lockdowns.
Imogen Barratt, co-author of the paper and a medical student from St George’s University explains, “Our environment has changed significantly. We stopped going to work. We stopped meeting friends. We stopped all of the external stressors and we just had to spend time at home with our partners or our families.”
These external stressors may be the key to keeping a baby to term, which is 40 weeks. Pre-term, in this study, is measured as births before 37 weeks’ gestation. These final weeks are crucial to prepare for life outside of the womb. It is an important period for weight gain and lung development, and without it leaves babies more vulnerable.
Dr Erkan Kalafat, a co-author of the study from Koc University, Turkey, views experiences from the COVID-19 pandemic as an unprecedented learning opportunity in maternity care worth investigating further. It is necessary to understand why a decrease in pre-term births in high income countries has occurred during a lockdown setting leading to “new preventative interventions that could potentially benefit all women worldwide.”
Pregnant or not, Barratt states, “we’ve all appreciated how important it is to be outside and how good it makes us feel. It’s a part of healthcare that we just don’t know enough about.”
For now this discovery needs further research but is something positive which has come from lockdown. “Going forward”, Barratt says, “Maybe we need to suggest that women take it easier from an earlier gestation. Maybe encouraging earlier maternity leave. Try and reduce going out. Relax at home and it might reduce your risk of having a spontaneous preterm birth.”
Kaylee Gregor is our Online Features Editor and studies Science Communication at Imperial College and medicine at St Georges University of London.