COLUMN: Something fishy about B.C.’s ever-punctual New Year’s babies

Long odds that babies would be delivered so regularly within first minutes of midnight on Jan. 1

This is going to sound weird, but something fishy seems to be going on with the New Year’s Babies.

Not the babies in particular – I’m sure they’re very nice! – but the annual routine. You know it well: Every year, the media gathers at some hospital or another in B.C. to meet the parents of the first baby born in the province. The same routine takes place across Canada.

It’s one of those feel-good stories that gets done because it’s an excuse to tell a feel-good story at a time of year when there’s not much else to report on at this time of year. Also: health officials seem happy with the publicity.

Ideally, it’s a random way to profile one random new baby.

But what if the New Year’s Baby isn’t random at all?

First, let’s be clear: a spokesperson from the Fraser Health Authority vows that the fact a New Year’s Baby may be in play doesn’t influence any health decisions. And there’s no sign that any one recent New Year’s Baby was the byproduct of someone trying to bring a baby into this world precisely at the stroke of midnight.

RELATED: B.C.’s first baby of 2020 arrives in New Westminster at 12:01 a.m.

RELATED: 2019 B.C. New Year’s baby born in New Westminster at 12:01 a.m.

RELATED: B.C.’s New Year’s Baby born in Surrey nine seconds after midnight

But a little math suggests that 12:00 and 12:01 on Jan. 1 might just be the busiest time for birthing all year.

Seven of the last eight years have seen B.C.’s New Year’s Baby delivered within the first two minutes of midnight. And that’s not normal. (Twice in the last 10 years, the baby was reportedly born within 10 seconds of midnight.)

Every year, around 40,000 babies are born in B.C. Every year has 525,600 minutes. Even if babies were born randomly throughout the year (they’re not, I’ll get to that later), to have seven of eight babies born within the first two minutes would seem unlikely.

How unlikely? After getting far too carried away with this question, I asked SFU statistician Richard Lockhart.

There is, he wrote me, about an eight in a million chance that you’d have so many babies born in the first two minutes of the year, if no other forces were at work.

Other forces, of course, are at work. Babies are more likely to be born in the day and much less likely to be born at night. They’re also less likely to be born on holidays. Eight-in-a-million odds might actually be pretty good.

(Lockhart pointed out that I may be cherry-picking the eight-year/two-seconds thing. That’s true, and was done to make the math easier. Beyond eight years, babies were born at 12:02, 12:03, 12:01, 12:13 (!) and 12:03. If everything were normal, you’d expect the average delivery time of the first baby to average around the 12:06 mark.)

If something is up, it’s not probably that nefarious.

One possible scenario would have Caesarean sections delivery schedules adjusted to increase the chances of a 12:00 baby and decrease the chances of one plucked from a mother at, say, 11:50.

Many New Year’s babies are Caesarean sections, some planned, others of the unplanned or emergency variety. I’ve been in the room for one of each. The doctors know exactly how long the procedures take and – even if the health of the couple is the priority – it’s reasonable to wonder if operations are timed to land a kid close to 12:00, instead of 11:45 p.m. or 12:15 a.m.

But I asked the parent of one recent New Year’s Baby, who also happens to be a doctor. He wrote that after-hours surgeries in most hospitals require the situation to be deemed urgent life- or limb-threatening, which one would hope would remove a birth time from the equation.

Those numbers – and the insane number of 12:00 New Years babies in other provinces – suggest something is up. Remember: midnight on a holiday would otherwise be an unlikely time to have a baby. Instead, it seems to be one of the busiest times.

The other possibility is more mundane: the gentle rounding of birth times after the fact.

My hunch is that this is primarily responsible for all the babies “born” right after the stroke of midnight.

Normally, it doesn’t matter if a baby is born at 12:05 or 12:01. On New Year’s it kind of does. So when someone gets around to looking at the clock, and they see it’s 12:05 and the baby is breathing, they round down a few minutes to when the baby was first glimpsed.

If someone looks at the clock and it says 12:00 on New Year’s, my guess is they’re much less likely to round down. On the other hand, if a baby squirms out at 11:59, and the operating room clock says 11:59, it would be understandable for a doctor or nurse to double check to see what the official time might say. All would combine to make it more likely for a baby to have a birth time recorded in the minutes after – rather than before – New Year’s. (I asked Vital Statistics for information on birth times. They said the information would cost $300.)

In a way, the subconscious rigging of the New Year’s Baby might be the humane thing to do. There is a ton of attention given to a New Year’s Baby, and maybe it’s better for everyone if the parents involved would welcome the attention, rather than shooing the cameras away, as is their obvious right.

In fact, it’s a little startling, in a country where people are often reluctant to talk to the media, just how consistently babies are born at the stroke of midnight to parents with stable households. It’s also worth noting that doctors and nurses seem far more aware than the parents of the prestige of a New Year’s Baby. In interviews talking about their babies, several parents mentioned just how excited hospital staff were to note that the baby was born right at midnight.

There is one area in which the potentially pre-planned nature of the New Year’s Baby could get problematic: gambling.

In 2018, the BC Lottery Corporation let people bet on the location of that year’s New Year’s Baby. (The bet wasn’t offered this year, because of website maintenance.) The “novelty bet” is one of several meant to give people a way to gamble on current affairs and other issues. But you can see where this is going. The BCLC says it closed wagers in 2018 two days before betting “to maintain the integrity of the bet.”

But if the location of the New Year’s Baby is determined in part by staff’s enthusiasm for delivering such babies, then you wonder how fair it is to everyone who thinks the big birth is actually random.

In 2016/17, the last year for which I could get statistics, Fraser Health delivered 40 per cent of all babies in B.C. Sixty per cent of babies were delivered in other health regions. But when it comes to New Year’s, Fraser Health is king, with five of the last six midnight babies delivered at the health authority’s hospitals.

As for that 2018 bet: it, clearly wasn’t rigged for betting purposes. I asked, and only the BC Lottery Corporation made any real money. Gamblers wagered $905 on the baby bet. Only $212 in prizes were paid out for correctly guessing Fraser Health’s Royal Columbian Hospital would be the location of the province’s first birth. Odds were nine-to-one. In 2020, the first baby was again delivered at RCH.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter for the Abbotsford News

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
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