Copenhagen, DenmarkSince the COVID-19 pandemic began, births in many wealthy countries across the world have plummeted. In 2020 the United States’ fertility rate cratered at its lowest ever, Chinese births plunged 15 percent, and France saw the fewest babies born since World War II. Meanwhile, the Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland—all have maintained their birthrates, and some are puzzled to find themselves in the midst of a pandemic baby boom.
After a staggering 16.5 percent more births than normal in the second quarter of 2021, Iceland has struggled to increase capacity in its maternity wards. Finland has seen a 7 percent leap in births, and Denmark and Norway have experienced 3 and 5 percent bumps, respectively. (Sweden boasts a very modest 1 percent increase).
The increase has baffled experts, even though there are myriad reasons the Nordic countries might have seen a milder dip in births compared to other nations. Northern Europe, for example, wasn’t hit as hard by the virus as their neighbors to the south, and generous financial incentives for families has helped insulate prospective parents from the economic effects of the pandemic.
What’s spurring this phenomenon? And what can countries experiencing a decline in births—including the United States—learn from the Nords’ surprising fertility resilience?
'Rebound in fertility'
Like many Western nations, the Nordic countries have been in a fertility slump for decades. That’s partly due to postponed fertility, as prospective parents delayed starting a family, whether to focus on education, career building, or living independently, experts say.
That implies that at some point, when they eventually have children, “a rebound in fertility is assumed,” says Jessica Nisén, a demography researcher at Finland’s University of Turku. Such “recuperation” births usually come toward the end of parents’ prime childbearing years, creating a sense of urgency. It’s now or never, regardless of a pandemic.
But it’s difficult to write off the current wave as postponed babies, especially in Iceland. There, the national health service noticed a dramatic uptick in the number of prenatal scans in December 2020. “We thought it would be a couple of months and then it would get lower again,” says Ingibjörg Thomsen Hreiðarsdóttir, head midwife at Reykjavík’s largest hospital Landspítali, where more than 70 percent of Icelandic babies are born.
“It didn’t happen that way,” Hreiðarsdóttir says. By summer 2021, there were so many babies being born that midwife reinforcements arrived from Poland, Australia, and Germany, and midwives in their 70s were pulled out of retirement. A few times a month, when bed space ran out, birthing mothers would spill over into the emergency room.
Based on the most recent prenatal scans, Hreiðarsdóttir estimates that Iceland may finish 2021 with 9 percent more births than normal. Between midwife shortages and continued pressure from COVID restrictions, the rush of babies isn’t the celebration you’d expect. “It’s unbelievable what’s happening here,” Hreiðarsdóttir says.
Meanwhile, Finland has seen a “sustained increase in fertility rate, right since the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Tomáš Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography. While Nisén of the University of Turku cautions that it may be too early to attribute the acceleration to the pandemic, preliminary results of her analyses indicate an increase in births across all regions of Finland and all age groups, except for women under 25.
The conventional wisdom is that a country’s birth rates ride the waves of its economy: When the economy prospers, births increase; in an economic crisis, conceptions falter. And though the COVID pandemic has more layers of worry and uncertainty than the typical stock market crash, population experts anticipated the general rule would hold. “If you had asked any demographer what would happen with fertility, everyone would have said ‘decline,’” says Ari Klængur Jónsson, a researcher at the University of Iceland who studies Nordic fertility dynamics.
“It’s remarkable that the Nordic countries have not seen declines,” Nisén agrees. But it’s not without precedent. Demographers have twice observed birth trends go against the economic cycle in the Nordic countries.
In the 1990s, Finland suffered a devastating recession when financial mismanagement and the collapse of the Soviet Union sent the unemployment rate sky-high. But births increased 2.3 percent between 1989 and 1993, Nisén says.
More recently, Iceland was one of the worst-hit economies in the world in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, when approximately 90 percent of the country’s economy collapsed. Yet births went up sharply. “Crisis seems to be the time when Icelanders increase their fertility,” says Anton Örn Karlsson, the head of demography at Iceland’s national statistics team.
A leading hypothesis on why this might be is that in times of economic uncertainty, the Nordic countries’ generous family leave pay helps alleviate concerns about increased financial burden. A new baby can act as a financial security net for the household.
“In times of crisis, you can kind of put your career on hold and focus on that, and you don’t really have to worry that much about the economic situation of your household,” says Karlsson.
All five Nordic countries offer paid parental leave for at least 11 months, based on income from the previous year. Payouts range from about 53 percent of income in Denmark to nearly 100 percent—and as much as $6,000 a month—in Norway. In Iceland, new parents receive 12 months of paid leave at 80 percent of their normal income, up to about $4,500 a month.
Karlsson added that he and his wife had their daughter just before the Great Recession. “That was actually pretty helpful for us.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lilja Karen Kjartansdóttir was about a year from graduating with a degree in tourism studies and entering Iceland’s booming travel industry—which promptly bottomed out when international travel restrictions grounded planes.
Kjartansdóttir, 24, and her partner knew they wanted a second child anyway, so why not shuffle the order and take maternal leave while the pandemic put a pause on her career? “It was a good time to have a baby and get a little bit of money from the maternity leave since finding a job would be hard anyways,” she says.
As a student, Kjartansdóttir was entitled to a parental allowance of 180,000 Icelandic Krona a month—the equivalent of about $1,370, enough to cover the mortgage on the family’s three-bedroom house in Hafnarfjörður, a port town just outside Reykjavík. Her partner was eligible for six months of paternal leave, or about $2,565 a month, based on his regular salary.
Their baby boy Júlí was born in time for Kjartansdóttir’s graduation in June 2021. With tourism in a bit of an upswing, Kjartansdóttir found a new job and started booking trips to Iceland and the Faroe Islands in November.
Convergence in circumstances
But generous family leave policies provide only a partial answer for the increase in births.
“The Nordic countries are coming from a decade of unexplained and unforeseen declines in fertility,” says Chiara Comolli, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm University Demography Unit. The welfare state had been in place for decades, yet “despite these amazing policies, birth rates were declining.”
Iceland and Finland fared better than the other Nordic countries in previous economic crises, and Iceland has been a stand-out during the pandemic. Why?
Researchers including Comolli point to a convergence in circumstances present in all three cases—economic instability paired with recent increases in financial support for parents.
Just before the 1990s crisis, Finland began “providing parents this kind of parental leave payment because they didn’t have enough capacity in kindergartens to provide public childcare,” Sobotka says. When the crisis set in, parental leave was extended and the home care payment was increased by 30 percent. In the early 2000s, Iceland lengthened paid parental leave from six to nine months and dramatically expanded public childcare.
In 2019, Iceland upped the ceiling for the maximum benefit parents can receive, and at the beginning of 2021, paid parental leave was extended from 10 to 12 months.
“It’s a matter of intervention in a way that families know that despite the changes and the crisis, the state is willing to do something to compensate,” Comolli says. She emphasizes that parental support policies affect different segments of the population differently. For example, the home care payment in Finland in the 1990s was a modest amount, which demographers expected would have a greater impact on women with lower educational attainment and fewer job prospects. But the data suggest the increase in births was actually due to births by highly educated women.
But Sobotka says demographers are still struggling to understand why the Nordic countries may respond differently. “For instance, France—which has the same kind of generous safety net, hundreds of policies supporting parents and families . . . is on a very average trajectory response to COVID, including the initial baby bust,” Sobotka explains.
For mothers like Kjartansdóttir, the confluence of the pandemic and Iceland’s parental benefits effectively lowered the opportunity cost of having a child in 2021. Due to the pandemic, pressing pause on her career was less of a sacrifice, and the parental benefits made the loss of income from not working less dramatic.
Other new moms pointed to the change in social opportunity costs.
“Everything was pretty much cancelled for 2021 due to COVID anyway,” Saara Valtonen, 31, of Pori, Finland, wrote in a Facebook response to National Geographic when asked whether the pandemic had an impact on her decision to get pregnant. “From my personal point of view it’s been a great time to be pregnant as I haven’t missed anything and I’ve had a great reason to stay home and stay safe and really focus on myself, my husband and now our baby.”
Suvi Vallarén, of Helsinki, Finland, agreed. “We were planning on having a baby after a couple of years,” she wrote. “But when the lockdown came and all of our vacations were cancelled and my husband started working from home…we thought better now than later when we were tied to our home anyways.”
Demographic researchers are also eager to study an unusual cohort: the babies that might never have been born at all were it not for the pandemic.
Drífa Hrund Guðmundsdóttir, 38, is a molecular biologist pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Iceland. She and her husband have two daughters, a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. To her surprise, what could have been a very stressful time ended up in domestic bliss. “During the pandemic, in the middle of lockdown, things just kind of slowed down a lot,” Guðmundsdóttir says.
“Usually [my daughters] would be busy with friends or sports,” she explains. But during lockdown, Guðmundsdóttir and her girls had lunch every day. “We would just have conversations about everything and nothing and have fun and laugh. We also baked and did puzzles—not something you do with your teenagers unless you’re locked inside all day.”
“I think that was the tipping point for me,” Guðmundsdóttir says. “I realized I wasn’t ready to be done with the mom thing.”
In the spring of 2020, she and her husband decided to try for a third child and got more than they bargained for. In March 2021, Guðmundsdóttir gave birth to twins—baby girl Brynja Lill and boy Baldur Logi.
Implications, short and long-term
The short-term impacts of the ‘baby wave’ are already obvious in Iceland, where the 2021 birth cohort is the largest in 10 years. When it was time to find a daycare for little Júlí, Kjartansdóttir reached out to 28 caregivers before finding a spot.
“Kindergarten—I don’t know,” she said. “I’m afraid this will be a problem because of all the kids.”
Demographers aren’t sure how this change in birth rate will impact the Nordic population in the long term. It’s unlikely to shift the total fertility rate, the number of babies the average woman will have in her lifetime.
Comolli says the pandemic’s real chance to change fertility patterns is actually the advent of teleworking. “If it persists and is conceived as a structural condition in a positive way to reconcile work and family domains for women,” she explains, “this could be something that in the long run could have a much greater positive effect on childbirth than lockdown and restrictions.”
Elizabeth Anne Brown is an independent science journalist based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @eabrown18.