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U.S. Births See Steeper Decline in 2020, Fertility Rates at Record Lows

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 2 days ago Chelsea Cirruzzo
a person lying on a bed: A newborn baby sleeps in an infant incubator. © (Getty Images) A newborn baby sleeps in an infant incubator.

It's still too early to tell conclusively whether the COVID-19 pandemic and its months of relative isolation led to a baby boom or bust. But early data points to a continuing and even more precipitous downward trend for births in the U.S.

New provisional figures in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the number of births in the U.S. dropped in 2020 for a sixth straight year to hit their lowest level since 1979. There were 3,605,201 births in 2020, marking a 4% decline from 2019. That compares with year-over-year drops of about 1% to 2% since 2015, other CDC data shows.

"The decline is noteworthy," report co-author Brady Hamilton says, noting that the number of births has been dropping steadily in recent years. "But a 4% decline in the number of births ... has not been seen since the early 1970s."

Hamilton says the pandemic was likely a factor in the decline, but not enough data is available yet to determine to what extent.

A separate analysis based on data from 25 states and published by The Associated Press last month shows even steeper drops in births that would have occurred approximately nine months or more after initial COVID-19 lockdowns took hold. In December of last year and in January and February of 2021, the number of births compared with the same months a year earlier dropped by 6.5%, 9.3% and 10%, respectively. Combined over those three months, the AP says, they were down about 8%.

The data published Wednesday by the CDC is not yet final but is based on 99.9% of 2020 birth records that were processed by the agency's National Center for Health Statistics as of Feb. 11. Birth declines were most significant among Asian and Alaska Native or American Indian women, with drops of 8% and 6%, respectively. The number of births among Hispanic women declined by 3%, while white and Black women both saw 4% declines.


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The country's general fertility rate, which measures the number of births per 1,000 women aged 15–44, continued its downward trend and dropped by 4% in 2020 to 55.8 – a record low in the U.S. The teen birth rate also hit a record low – dropping 8% to 15.3 births per 1,000 females aged 15-19 – and has declined by 7% on average each year since 2007.

Also hitting record lows were the birth rates for women 20-24 and 25-29 years old – which were down 6% and 4%, respectively – and the country's total fertility rate, which "estimates the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes," according to the report.

The total fertility rate dropped 4% to 1637.5 per 1,000 – below the level of 2,100 "at which a given generation can exactly replace itself," the report notes. "The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and has consistently been below replacement since 2007," the report says.

After consistently increasing from 1985 to 2019, the birth rate for women aged 40-44 dropped by 2% from 2019. Meanwhile, the rate of delivery by cesarean section ticked up from 31.7% in 2019 to 31.8% in 2020 after generally declining since 2009. The low-risk C-section rate – measuring C-sections among women giving birth for the first time to a single baby, born after reaching term and in the head-first position – also ticked up from 25.6% to 25.9%.

For the first time since 2014, according to the report, the preterm birth rate declined, going to 10.09% from 10.23%.

The data out Wednesday was accompanied by another report that encompassed early pandemic data and showed the share of births among New York City residents that occurred outside of the city increased for all months from March through November when comparing 2019 to 2020.

Increases ranged from 15% in September to 70% in April, and the overall rise was driven heavily by an increase in out-of-city births among white women, whose percentage of such births more than doubled in April and May of 2020 and was up by at least 30% through November.

"In contrast, out-of-city births increased in only two months among non-Hispanic black (May and November) and Hispanic (April and August) women," the report states.

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