For those who thought that lockdown would leave couples with little else to do than procreate, there was a surprise – not a baby boom but a baby bust. Research shows that the US is facing the biggest slump in births in a century and in parts of Europe the decline is even steeper.

When Frederike moved in with her parents to care for an elderly relative at the beginning of the pandemic she thought of it as a gift, a chance to spend time with her family.

But a few months in, the 33-year-old from Germany started to feel a deep sense of loss.

Frederike is single and realised that the pandemic was robbing her of the chance to meet someone and start a family.

“Time feels really precious at the moment and my life has been put on hold,” she says.

She tried online dating but going on walks in winter in sub-zero temperatures doesn’t encourage romance.

Now, when she’s feeling low the same thought swirls obsessively inside her head: “When this is over I’m going to be infertile.

“I’m sitting indoors in the years when I can have a child.”

For those who study population the baby bust was not a revelation.

“Having seen how bad the pandemic was I’m not surprised,” says Philip N Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “But it is still just shocking to see something like this happen in real time.”

In June last year economists at the Brookings Institute in the United States estimated that US births would fall by 300,000 to half a million babies. At the same time a survey of fertility plans in Europe showed 50% of people in Germany and France who had planned to have a child in 2020 were going to postpone it. In Italy 37% said they had abandoned the idea altogether. A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report indicates an 8% drop in births in the month of December.

image captionExperts predict a slump in birth rate in the US will extend to August

Early data from Italy suggests a 21.6% decline at the beginning of the year and Spain is reporting its lowest birth rate since records began – a decline of 20%. Nine months on from the start of the pandemic France, Korea, Taiwan, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all reported monthly birth figures for December or January that were their lowest in more than 20 years.

Google search terms

Joshua Wilde and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany predicted this decline and their research shows the effect – in the US at least – is likely to go on for months.

They looked at the prevalence of Google search terms in the US – like the pregnancy test “Clearblue” or “morning sickness”. In October they predicted that by February there would be a 15.2% decline in births. Now they see that slump extending until August.

It would be the largest fall in births in more than a century, lasting longer than the effect of the 2008 recession or even the Great Depression in 1929.