CALGARY -- Staff at Calgary’s neonatal intensive care units (NICU) were expecting to see an increase in premature births as stress levels increased in pregnant women during the pandemic.

South Calgary Campus and Foothills Hospital neonatologist Dr. Alshaikh and hospital staff were prepared for an influx of patients at Foothills because the NICU at South Campus was closed in anticipation of COVID-19 cases developing in Calgary.

"So (therefore) we would have more deliveries in other sites, but that didn’t happen," said Alshaikh. "Actually what happened is the number even went down to lower than usual for this period of time."

Dr. Alshaikh found that from mid-March to almost mid-June of 2020, 20 preterm infants were born. A year ago the number was 39.

"Initially we thought this was a usual variation because we see sometimes a variation during the year even and between years," Alshaikh said. "But it was consistent this year and it was more that what we usually see with the variation."

Dr. Alshaikh learned doctors in Ireland, Denmark and parts of the United States were encountering similiar decreases in preterm births. They think it might be because expectant mothers were able to stay home earlier in their pregnancy, creating less stress. Environmental factors are also being considered as there has been less air pollution with fewer cars on the road. Social distancing measures also keep mothers-to-be from being exposed to potentially harmful germs and viruses.

"We are hoping to come up with some kind of solution in the future and some information from these studies that we can use for the future to prevent preterm birth," said Alshaikh.

Researchers from Europe and North America are teaming up to see if they can pinpoint the reason for fewer preterm births during the pandemic.