Research by a team of specialists from 12 maternity hospitals and seven health services across Melbourne found babies' birth weights were up, new mums were more likely to be heavier and have gestational diabetes, and fewer babies were exclusively breastfed during the 2020 lockdown.
The findings led the team’s lead investigator, Mercy Hospital for Women Department of Perinatal Medicine Obstetrician Lisa Hui, to win the top prize - the Aldo Vacca Award - at this year’s Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ Annual Scientific Meeting.
Speaking ahead of World Health Day, April 7, Prof Hui said the study found a rise in babies born in the top 10 per cent birth weight range. “Another way you could put it is a rise in those weighing 4kg or more.”
The findings could have ramifications elsewhere, as many nations continue to face pandemic restrictions.
“A big bouncing baby is seen as a good thing but may not be when associated with things such as an increase in gestational diabetes, which is another thing we noticed during lockdown,” Prof Hui says.
“And bigger babies can have higher risk of birth trauma, delivery by caesarean, and low blood sugar.”
Prof Hui says there were no firm findings on what caused the weight gains, but the team suspects strong links to reduced physical activity caused by lockdown.
“We have to go back and look at individual risk factors for these women,” she says.
“But we saw an increase in gestational diabetes, and that is associated with bigger babies. And mothers’ BMIs went up last year, and that would also lead to bigger babies.
“It could be due to a mix of factors, but most likely to less general physical movement. Although we were allowed outdoors for exercise for one hour a day during the stage 4 lockdown, we were still missing all that incidental movement you normally have when you are commuting to work, taking kids to after-school activities and shopping.
“There could have also a contribution from stress and a rise in comfort eating, something that was reported as happening overseas in lockdown.”
Breastfeeding rates also fell.
“They could be related to early discharge from hospital, average length of stay and whether that changed during the pandemic,” Prof Hui says.
“New mothers were missing a lot of support. Their mums and sisters couldn’t come over as they were restricted to having one other person, usually their partner, so unless that partner knew something about breastfeeding they without that early support network.
“Big babies and babies from mums with gestational diabetes are also prone to low blood sugar in the first few days of life and might need a formula top-up, which would also reduce the exclusive breast feeding rates.”
Prof Hui set up the CoMaND project (Collaborative Maternity and Newborn Dashboard) in order to provide real-time monitoring of perinatal outcomes in metropolitan Melbourne.
“We are collecting data that is routinely submitted to the Department of Health but we are putting it together ourselves so we get monthly data uploads,” she says.
“The department will also publish the Victoria-wide data but the time frame is much slower. Our data is not perfect but it gives us a sense of what is happening in a more immediate way for Melbourne hospitals.”
Prof Hui hopes and expects the effects of Covid the team spotted will ease as pandemic fades into history.
“We hope it goes back to normal, and these effects are not ongoing. But we will continue to monitor these outcomes until the end of 2022.
“Also, there were women pregnant during the later stage of lockdown who haven’t given birth yet. We will see if there is a lag in the effects we found.”