The stay-at-home coronavirus orders are unprecedented in America but the speculation about what may ensue nine months hence is not: Prepare for a baby boom!
At the least, prepare for jokes about a baby boom.
Or maybe not. Perhaps it's all an urban myth propagated (no pun intended) mostly by baby boomers, that giant cohort of Americans born in the years after World War II when everyone came home and got busy again.
Nevertheless, it's fun for people to speculate about a baby boom in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, what else do they have to do, stuck at home and bored?
Speculate, that is. Not the other thing. Because think about it: Even a mild version of coronavirus could make one sick enough to take to bed, and not with baby-making in mind.
But this question comes up, along with jokes, every time Americans are under pressure and telling themselves, "We're in this together!" Even when we're not.
The interest is such that people on Twitter are suggesting new names for this supposed coronavirus cohort: Coronials. Quaranteens. Baby Zoomers.
"Are we all agreed that babies born 9 months after COVID-19 are going to be call coronials? And in 2033/2034 they'll all become quaranteens? #dadjoke," tweeted Keith Smith.
"There's so much video calling going on that the babies conceived during the coronavirus pandemic should be called "Baby Zoomers," posted Brian Sharon.
This jovial attitude is why there were tabloid stories about a possible global shortage of condoms as condom factories shut down. Under this thinking, no condoms = more babies.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a leading provider of birth control services, has made the link between contraception and a possible baby boom, too: It's encouraging patients to make use of PPDirect, an app that connects them to a doctor via video so they can get birth control pills without leaving the house.
“Only time will tell if a baby boomlet will be a potential outcome of the COVID-19 response," says June Gupta, Planned Parenthood's director of medical standards.
"These (social distancing) recommendations mean people are spending a lot of time together and may have more time than usual to have sex. This could result in more pregnancies if, hypothetically speaking, people are unable to access family planning resources like birth control, emergency contraception, condoms or abortion.”
Still, there's little data to support the claim that catastrophes – regional power blackouts, hurricanes and snowstorms, terrorist attacks or global pandemics that force people to stay at home for extended periods – lead inexorably, as night follows day, to a quantifiable jump in births months later.
But after every disaster, including this one, people think there might be such a boom so naturally the media rush to feed the speculation. Just as quickly, sober scientists carefully play down the hype.
"On the whole, it’s unlikely that America will see a coronavirus baby boom – but we could see a baby blip," wrote Richard Evans, associate director in the graduate computational social science program at the University of Chicago, in an op-ed column in The Washington Post last month. "Given all the previous evidence on how different types of catastrophes affect our fertility, it seems likely that we can expect a small increase in births as a result of the coronavirus."
How small? Nationwide, he thinks there could be a 2% increase, meaning roughly 6,000 extra births per month this winter, depending on how long the shutdown endures. Not exactly a boom.
A coronavirus baby boom is "very unlikely," agrees Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who specializes in family structure, marriage and divorce. Even if people cooped up had sex more often, he says, frequency isn't what counts – it's contraception.
"Lots of babies are born to couples not living together, who presumably (because of social distancing) are less likely to have sex and children now," Cohen says. "So even if a few people accidentally or on purpose decide to have a baby now, they will probably be outnumbered by the lost births from people meeting less, having sex with non-residential partners less and deciding now is not a good time."
Sheeva Talebian, a fertility/OB-GYN specialist and fertility expert for Women's Health magazine, says she thinks people will hesitate to get pregnant right now due to stress, fear of infection or financial worries.
"My prediction is that we will not see a true baby boom given the various factors, such as unknown risk during the first trimester, difficult accessing routine medical care at this time, financial stress and emotional stress," Talebian says.
"Yes, there have been baby booms during times of enforced togetherness at home, but on the other hand, people tend to postpone kids when they are insecure about the future," adds Stephanie Coontz, an expert in family studies and a professor emeritus at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
"Birth rates generally fall during recessions and depression, and since this pandemic is causing serious and likely long-lasting economic hardship, I don't expect many people to try for a child," Coontz says.
Even if there are more pregnancies, there may not be more babies, says Sarita Bennett, president of the Midwife Alliance of North America, a licensed family practitioner and certified professional midwife who is trained to do home births.
"Statistics that show when there is panic or terror, the very normal mammalian response is an increase in preterm births and miscarriages," Bennett says. "The more you feed the panic, the more of a (negative) effect on pregnant people."
Midwives across the country are already being inundated with requests from pregnant women who have seen the chaos in hospitals as a result of the pandemic, Bennett says. "I will make a prediction of a possible increase in people choosing home births because so many are looking at our hospitals and it's enough to push them into that choice," Bennett says.
Just to make things interesting, there are people who predict that there's going to be a divorce boom, too, thanks in part to so much enforced togetherness and the tensions that arise from, say, one spouse losing a job or another not doing their fair share of chores.
"I think it is going to be 50-50" more births and more divorces, says Randall Kessler, an Atlanta matrimonial attorney. "We are seeing it. We are fielding at least twice as many calls per day as in normal times for people who are considering a divorce.
"And this is historically consistent. In times of crisis, or when tensions are increased, divorces always seem to rise. It has already occurred in China. In the United States, we learned lessons from disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 recession."
Where did this post-disaster baby boom idea come from? Evans points to the media, specifically The New York Times' articles after the great New York City blackout of November 1965. "When several local hospitals registered an increase in births starting in August 1966, the Times attributed the spike to how the infants’ parents kept busy when the lights went out," Evans explained in his column.
But when sociologists tested the assumption years later, it turned out there was no statistically significant increase or decrease in the number of conceptions during the blackout. The Snopes fact-checking website confirms this.
"Yet ever since, each new disaster seems to have brought reports of a new surge in births," Evans wrote.
Why does any of this matter and to whom, aside from a diversion from our current woes? Most obviously, it will matter eventually to census takers, just beginning their 2020 decennial counting of the American population.
But the people who really care will be the bean-counting bureaucrats in local school districts all over the country. If there is a baby boom, it's going to matter to their calculations down the line about how many new schools to build five or six years hence.
And that will matter to their taxpayers.