By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The millennium baby battle for the fame and fortune that is expected to surround the first birth of the 21st century may result in stopwatch-carrying independent assessors being called in by Irish maternity hospitals.
The timing of the arrival of New Year babies used to be calculated in minutes, but it is now down to seconds and race to deliver first is expected to be keenly fought after the final moments of 1999 have ticked away.
The Mothercare chain of shops in Britain have already offered gifts and some TV channels are also understood to be planning wacky program schedules that will help couples to get "in the mood" in late March if they want to enter the fray.
More than a third of Irish births take place in Dublin’s three maternity hospitals: the Rotunda, the Coombe and Holles Street.
The masters in all three are to meet to agree to ground rules for how the first birth will be judged.
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Winning the "race" will not be biologically easy.
"It is extremely difficult to plan it," said Dr. Declan Keane, master of Holles Street.
Couples aspiring to have the first offspring of 2000 need to start planning soon, as births normally occur about 40 weeks from the first day of the last period before conception occurred.
Keane said that this would mean that to have a delivery date of Dec. 31/Jan. 1, the first day of the woman’s last period would be on March 24.
"However, human nature is imperfect and a term pregnancy can be anything from 38 to 42 weeks.
So even if someone conceives a week or so after March 24, she may not have her baby until 42 weeks, in which case the woman will end up delivering her baby on Jan. 15 rather than Jan. 1."
There have been suggestions that St. Patrick’s Day should be conception day for millennium mothers, but Keane said that using the national holiday for conception would technically give a delivery date of Dec. 24.
He said, however, that first-time mothers are usually more likely to be late rather than early, so March 17 conceptions might be delivering close to the end of the year.
Keane hoped that any ground rules agreed would be adopted countrywide by the other maternity hospitals.
He said that if there is to be high-profile media attention, prestige and financial inducements for the first baby, then it is going to be a big event.
There is, Keane said, a "great degree of ambiguity" about time of birth when only seconds are involved.
This year one hospital announced a baby born five seconds past midnight and then another claimed an arrival at three seconds past.
"You could argue that if it is going to be a major, prestigious event next year, there should be independent assessors based in the maternity hospitals to assess which is the first new-born baby of the millennium," Keane said.
Keane said that a baby was normally regarded as born when it fully emerged from the birth canal.
He said he could easily see how hospitals could take the step of being ready with scalpels in hand at a few minutes to midnight to do a cesarean so that the baby "popped out at one second past."
Keane said the first ground rule he would like to see was that only natural births should be considered and not cesarean operations.
He and his colleagues will probably meet some time in the summer to discuss the situation.
"That will leave plenty of time before the millennium night itself," he said.
He said there is a "healthy" competition between the hospitals.
"We all have an interest in getting the first birth of the year, but at the end of the day decisions are always made on medical and obstetrical grounds," he said. "It’s a healthy competition and a healthy interest, but it’s nothing more than that.
"We would certainly not be inducing anybody on New Year’s Eve to give them the opportunity of having the millennium baby. That would be purely induction for a social reason."
He told RTE that Holles Street had a multiple birth three or four years ago in which a set of twins were born on either side of midnight on Dec. 31 with 17 minutes between them. If that happens this year, they will be born in different centuries.