Are recessions good or bad for babies’ health? In a comprehensive analysis using data for virtually all children born between 1976 and 2016, Noelke et al. find that economic downturns are hazardous if mothers are exposed to their adverse effects during the first trimester of pregnancy. During the second and third trimester, however, protective effects of downturns dominate. These associations are stronger in more recent data encompassing the Great Recession. Babies born to black and less educated mothers are particularly affected by economic downturns, which likely reflects pre-existing inequalities in health conditions, work environments, and exposure to pollution, leaving black and less educated mothers more exposed and vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy. Overall, the study illustrates the complex ways newborn health is linked to the health of the economy. The findings highlight the increased relevance of economic conditions for birth outcomes and continuing, large inequities in the impact of economic conditions on birth outcomes.

Preterm birth chart

During the first trimester of pregnancy, a one percentage point increase in state unemployment increases preterm birth rates, but during the second and third trimesters, unemployment has a protective effect, bringing preterm birth rates down.