The number of babies born prematurely plummeted during the coronavirus lockdown, but the reason why is a mystery.

Dr Simon Rowley, consultant paediatrician and neonatologist at Auckland City Hospital, told Stuff occupancy rates on its neonatal ward – even for the earliest, most extreme premature cases – dropped by almost half during alert level 4.

It’s a phenomenon which has been seen in a number of countries, including Australia, Ireland, Denmark and parts of the United States, the New York Times reported this week.

Exactly what is behind the trend is a mystery, but Rowley believes it could be linked to expectant mums being forced to slow down and rest – no mad supermarket dashes or school runs.Rowley said the neonatal ward typically runs at about 85-100 per cent capacity, but saw “very, very low” rates coinciding with the alert level 4 lockdown. This was across the board, including both babies born late-preterm (between 32 and 37 weeks) and those extremely preterm (born between 22 and 30 weeks).

January – typically a quiet month – saw an average bed occupancy rate of between 75 and 100 per cent. The neonatal ward was at 95-100 per cent on average in February, and rose to 100 per cent in March.

New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown on March 26, and moved to level 3 on April 27. April’s average occupancy – in line with lockdown – was sitting as low as between 52 and 72 per cent.

Ward occupancy rates were still down to about mid-May – when New Zealand moved down to alert level two – ranging in the 50-60s, Rowley said. This picked back up to between 80-100 per cent occupancy in June, and were up to 110 per cent currently. Rowley said the rates were “quite unusual”, particularly as April and May was not a traditionally quiet time of year.

He said he thought it was a “blip” at first, but similar stories around the world suggested it was something healthcare professionals “should take some notice of”.

According to the New York Times, neonatologists in Calgary in Alberta, Canada saw premature births drop by nearly half during lockdown, and seemed more pronounced in the earliest babies. A neonatologist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, US, estimated there were about 20 percent fewer Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) babies at his hospital than usual in March.

You can see the full article on Stuff here