It’s Feb. 29, and in hospitals across the U.S., mothers and their doctors are welcoming a special group of babies — children whose birthday only shows up once every four years on the calendar. What that means for those babies, often called “leapers,” ranges from quadrennial blowouts to celebrate their uniqueness to childhood taunting and repeated frustration as organizations and computerized systems refuse to acknowledge their birthdate.
“It’s not nearly as prevalent as it has been in the past, which is really good, but there are still businesses and organizations when you go to register, they don’t have that date in there,” said Raenell Dawn, co-founder of the Honor Society of Leap Year Babies.
Dawn recalled trying to confirm leap year birthdate for a sleep study and having it rejected by the clinic’s health IT system. "My doctor had my birthdate as Feb. 29, 1960, but the places where I’m getting tested have a different date for my birth. That’s not cool for identification and just in general,” she said.
Leapers also note problems with driver’s licenses showing invalid expiration dates, such as Feb. 29, 2015, which was not a leap year, and life insurance policies that use a person’s birthday rather than calculating actual years of life.
As the year 2000 approached and Y2K hysteria mounted, the FDA warned of possible leap year-related issues with medical devices and the need for contingency plans in the event a device failed.
How birthdays can sometimes work
If you assume the odds of being born on Feb. 29 are the same as any other day, and there are 1,461 days in four years, then the likelihood of being a leaper are one in 1,261. Based on the latest Census Bureau data, that translates to about 205,000 people in the U.S. Worldwide. Leapers are thought to number around 4.8 million.
While most people eventually embrace their special birthday, it can sometimes be psychologically challenging, particularly for a child. As one of three siblings born in February, Dawn’s mother would mark each child’s age on the calendar. Hers was in an empty box next to the 28th.
Leapers also recount being teased as children because they didn’t have an official birthday every year, or being told they were too young to play with children their age because they were only two or four in leap years.
To protect children from such abuse and ensure they wouldn’t feel left out at birthday time, some mothers have asked to be induced or scheduled caesarean sections to avoid giving birth on a leap day. Doctors have also been known to alter the birth certificate to say Feb. 28 or March 1, instead of Feb. 29, Dawn said — a practice that’s “completely illegal.”
On the bright side, leapers get to pick when they celebrate their birthday three out of every four years. While most pick either Feb. 28 or March 1, the latter is usually used to denote the first day a person can drive, purchase alcohol or collect Medicare or Social Security in non-leap years.
But what if.......?
Given the special circumstances — and outright difficulties — caused by adding an extra day every four years, what would the impact be if there was an extra week every five or six years?
That’s what two professors at Johns Hopkins University are proposing. Under a calendar developed by physics and astronomy professor Dick Henry and economist Steve Hanke, all of the months would have either 30 or 31 days, eliminating Feb. 29 as leap day, and an extra week would be added every five or six years to keep the months aligned with the various seasons. The calendar would look identical from year to year, and time zones would disappear, so if it was six o’clock in Washington, D.C., it would be six o’clock in Paris and in Istanbul.
“Right now, the calendar changes completely every year. Everything falls on a different day of the week. Complete chaos!” Henry said in an email exchange. “Every institution must make up a complete new calendar for all their activities, every single year.”
Henry and Hanke hope to launch their calendar in 2018. “The time part is already used worldwide by every single airplane pilot, USA included,” Henry noted, adding it’s time to “get with the program.”
More research is needed
Dawn said she’s “perfectly okay with the calendar being altered if it is perfecting the system better than we have now.” After all, that's why the Gregorian calendar, with its Feb. 29 leap day, was adopted in 1582. It’s all about creating a balance between the calendar and the seasons, she said. On the other hand, Dawn isn’t sure that creating a whole week of leap day babies just to have every date occur on the same day of the week year after year makes sense. “That would really turn things upside down,” she said.
As for how celebrating her birthday this year (number 14 in leap years), Dawn said she’ll be volunteering at Leap into Literacy Night at her son’s school, reading about a little frog who is born on leap day and explaining the quadrennial event to a new generation of listeners.