The number of living babies born in England and Wales increased slightly for the first time in a decade, driven largely by women giving birth at older ages, with the rate decreasing for women under 24, and in other age groups.
But worryingly, the ONS also confirmed that, in 2021, the number of stillbirths rose for the first time since 2014, from 3.9 babies in every 1,000 in 2020 to 4.2 in 1,000 last year.
Rates of stillbirth continued to differ across the country, with more deprived areas, including the North East and Yorkshire, experiencing higher rates than the most affluent regions. This means that the most vulnerable women in the UK continue to have worse pregnancy experiences.
COVID-19 has had both indirect and direct effects on pregnant women and people over the last 2 years. Indirectly, the pandemic had a significant impact on maternity services, putting them under greater pressure. There were higher rates of stillbirth in January 2021, which coincided with the peak of the second wave of COVID-19.
Directly, our research has shown that getting COVID-19 during pregnancy could cause problems in the placenta, and this can increase the risk of pregnancy complications including premature birth and stillbirth.
Tommy’s has been supporting efforts to ensure pregnant women and people giving birth are protected from COVID-19 infection to reduce their risk of pregnancy complications and loss, and we’re working to ensure that good, high-quality care is available for every family, everywhere.
We’ve also recently come together with Sands to form a Joint Policy Unit. As a team, we'll provide an independent voice with the aim of ensuring the government meets its commitments to reducing baby loss and tackling inequalities in maternity outcomes.
Rates of stillbirth had been following a consistent decline over recent years, and we believe 2021’s increase is unacceptable. It highlights exactly why we need to increase efforts to meet NHS England’s aim of reducing stillbirth rates by 50% by 2025.
It is also unacceptable that who you are and where you live continues to have an impact on whether your baby is born healthy – and it’s vital that our government and health services continue to focus on tackling these inequalities.
Action to reduce stillbirth must be a national priority as health services recover following the COVID-19 pandemic, and more work must be done to understand the reasons for the increase in stillbirths and help improve care for pregnant women and people at risk.