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New England led a 13-state pandemic baby boomlet

The Brown School in Berlin, which the district closed in 2019 amidst declining enrollment and funding challenges.
Sarah Gibson for NHPR
The Brown School in Berlin, which the district closed in 2019 amidst declining enrollment and funding challenges.

This story was originally produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which allows NHPR and other new outlets to republish its work under a Creative Commons license.

New England has seen an unusual uptick in births during the coronavirus pandemic as more highly educated residents, especially those in their 30s, seized working from home as an opportunity to start a family.

All six New England states were among the 13 states where births increased between 2019 and 2021. New Hampshire and Tennessee were the only states with more births last year than in 2014, the last time births rose nationally.

The New England baby boomlet is notable in a region with the lowest birth rates in the nation—and it contrasts with a long-term national decline in births.

Caitlin Doherty, 33, doesn’t feel lonely as a new mother in Dover, New Hampshire; in fact, she’s worried about competing with other new families for housing.

“Looking for a house in October we were outbid by $50,000 or even $100,000 over asking price,” Doherty said. “You should see all the people my age lining up for these open houses, young families and pregnant people. It’s crazy.”

In New Hampshire, the 7% increase in 2021 births compared with pre-pandemic 2019 was the highest increase in the nation. It was driven almost completely by women like Doherty in their early 30s with a college degree, according to a Stateline analysis of detailed birth data provided by the state.

“Our generation, and it’s a big generation, is really ready for parenthood, and we’re homebuyers,” said Doherty, whose first child, Connor, was born in August while she took a break from her career as a dietitian.

Births across the United States increased in 2021 for the first time in seven years, by 1% to about 3.7 million. But that’s still lower than 2019, continuing a long-term drop since a peak of 4.3 million in 2007. Only the New England states and a handful of others saw more births last year than in 2019, including New Jersey and Colorado, which also have large shares of young women with college degrees.

Some experts say the boomlet in those states in 2021 would have been larger had the pandemic not delayed decisions to start families in 2020. The increase in some states “has nothing to do with the pandemic. It has everything to do with people delaying childbearing to have them in their 30s rather than in their 20s,” said Joshua Wilde, a research scientist who used to live in Florida but now studies birth trends in the United States from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

As in New Hampshire, where births to women 30 or younger have gone down as total births have gone up, younger women “have been having less kids over time as they postpone having kids until later in life,” Wilde said.

Along with the New England states, births increased between 2019 and 2021 in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released in May.

At the opposite end, births dropped more than 5% in eight states and nearly 6% in West Virginia and California, 7% in Hawaii and 9% in New Mexico. Like New England, California, the District of Columbia and New York state have large shares of women with college degrees. But those places faced more pandemic-related disruption and have more acute shortages of affordable housing.

California had a “more stringent, longer and more comprehensive lockdown period” compared with other states, causing more blue-collar unemployment that might have led some residents to put off having children, said Walter Schwarm, chief demographer for California’s Department of Finance.

Births nationwide remain well below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 births per woman needed to prevent population decline, a level they haven’t reached since 2007, according to the CDC. The rate ticked up slightly last year from 2020, but only to about 1.7.

The overall U.S. birth rate of 55.8 per 1,000 women is the lowest rate since statistics started being kept in 1909. New England states ranked lowest the last time the numbers were released in 2020, with all six New England states plus Oregon below 50 births per 1,000 women.

In New England, some new mothers like Doherty said they came back from other parts of the country to reunite with friends and family who could help with the baby. A Federal Reserve Bank of Boston study found that permanent moves to New England jumped 21% in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, compared with the previous year. But study author Nicholas Chiumenti said it’s hard to tell how many people were relocating to start families and how many just wanted a scenic spot to wait out the virus.

“New England is one of those places where you might leave but you always go back,” said Erin Carroll-Manning, whose Gentle Giraffes business helps new parents set up routines and spaces for newborns. She has seen such higher demand for her services that she’s expanded her Massachusetts-based service to all of New England.

One of her clients, Kira Mikityanskaya, 33, moved to a Boston suburb during the pandemic to have her first baby, Aubrey, and reconnect with family and old friends from her college days at Tufts University, where she met her husband. She found many of those friends having babies as well.

“We’re all in that phase of life. It’s that time,” she said. “We have always imagined we would move back here. We just didn’t know when that would be.” She earned an MBA in California, then moved to Detroit to work in the automotive industry.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t really get a chance to experience the Detroit area because everything was locked down, so we decided since we were going to have a baby we would move back,” she added. Her daughter was born in December.

“We like living near a city, Boston, yet having close access to hiking, nature and skiing in New Hampshire and Vermont. This area provides the best of both worlds,” she said.

Experts say the baby boomlet in some states is a turnaround from the first year of the pandemic, when many couples put off childbearing plans as unemployment skyrocketed. Then many college-educated workers found remote work provided stability and more flexible hours for accommodating babies.

Most 2021 births represent a decision to conceive in 2020, the height of the pandemic, and New England’s combination of an educated population and outdoor recreation might have made the decision easier there, as well as in popular destinations with recreational potential such as Colorado and Idaho.

Nationwide there was a baby bust of 62,000 fewer conceptions in the early part of the pandemic — late winter and early spring of 2020 — but then a rebound later in the year of 51,000 as parents changed their minds about the feasibility of having children under pandemic conditions, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in April. Many of those later rebound conceptions resulted in 2021 births, co-author Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, told Stateline.

Phoebe Story, 30, who grew up in Concord, New Hampshire, and has lived nearby since 2018, had her first child at the height of pandemic shutdowns in May 2020, and another in 2021.

“It was really scary” to be pregnant in the early months of the pandemic, said Story, who is a partner in a financial consulting business based in Massachusetts.

“There was so much uncertainty about the future,” she said. “I didn’t even know if my husband would be allowed in the delivery room.”

But she could work remotely, and her husband has a short commute, making it more feasible to have another child last year. They’ve been outbid multiple times, however, in trying to buy a larger house.

In Florida, where births dropped 2% between 2019 and 2021, about the same as the national average, birth rates varied based on whether an area was liberal or conservative, according to unpublished research by Heather Rackin, an associate sociology professor at Louisiana State University.

Early in the pandemic, fertility rates decreased in Democratic areas of the state but increased in Republican areas, resulting in more babies in GOP areas in the first few months of 2021. But the effect quickly faded, and Democratic areas came back stronger in the number of babies born later in 2021.

Researchers checked to see whether Republican downplaying of pandemic dangers might have affected decisions about having children. “We did this because we thought during uncertain times, partisan media and thought leaders may shape ideas about the future,” Rackin said.

However, she said, the Democratic areas in Florida also have higher rates of college education and are more urban, so the rebound may have had something to do with white-collar job stability as the pandemic progressed.

Jackie Delory, 33, of Everett, Massachusetts, said the pandemic didn’t change her plans to have a baby; her son A.J. was born in November. She and her husband bought a condo in the area in 2020 to have more space, and with less to do during lockdowns it seemed like the time was right. Delory has her own business as a marketing consultant under the name Jackie Zuk.

“What the pandemic did was force a lot of people to live and work in the same space so they had the flexibility. I already had it myself since I’m my own boss,” she said.

All Stateline stories are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Tim Henderson - Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
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