A boom year for babies: start of trend or a one-off?

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England and Wales had a baby boom last year with the highest annual rise in births since the 1970s. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday showed there were 621,469 live births in 2003 - the highest number for five years - and 596,122 in the previous 12 months.

England and Wales had a baby boom last year with the highest annual rise in births since the 1970s. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday showed there were 621,469 live births in 2003 - the highest number for five years - and 596,122 in the previous 12 months.

This is a yearly increase of 4.3 per cent, the sharpest jump since 1979. In the previous three years the birth rate had dropped to its lowest level since records began in 1924.

The proportion of babies born outside marriage also grew, increasing from 40.6 per cent in 2002 to 41.4 per cent in 2003, almost 10 per cent higher than the level 10 years ago.

The data also revealed that women are waiting even longer to become mothers, with the average age of women having their first child now 27.4 years compared to 26.2 a decade ago. The median age of women giving birth also increased slightly from 29.3 years in 2002 to 29.4 years in 2003. In 1993 the figure was 28.1.

A spokesman for the ONS said of the increase in births yesterday: "It is too early to say whether this is the start of a trend or just a one-off.

"We have had previous occasions when there have been increases, then rates fall off again. If you look at it in the context of the low fertility rates of the previous two or three years, it could be a case of just catching up. We will have to wait and see if it is the beginning of an upward trend."

Yesterday's data also showed the number of women giving birth between the ages of 30 and 34 - 94.9 per 1,000 - is now almost as high as those aged 25 to 29 having babies - 95.8 per 1,000.

In the early 1970s the number of births in England and Wales was about 800,000. Since a steep dip in the middle of that decade the figure has fluctuated around 600,000.

A provisional forecast based on last year's figures predicts that today's mother can expect to have 1.73 children during her life if the fertility rate remains at the same level. That represents a 4.7 per cent increase on 2002 when the forecast was 1.65, the largest annual jump in almost a quarter of a century.

The number of deaths registered increased by 0.7 per cent last year to 539,151, compared to 535,356 in 2002, a rate of approximately 10 per 1,000 population. Infant mortality remained steady at 5.3 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The ONS Report in Population Trends is expected to be published next month. John Cleland, professor of medical demography at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the UK - although below the world average of three children per woman - had one of the highest rates of fertility in Europe, below France, but well above Italy, Spain, Germany and Russia.

The low birth-rate in the northern countries was due to economic uncertainty, he said, but the situation was different in southern Europe. The more recent emancipation of Spanish and Italian women meant that men were still reluctant to help with household chores.

Consequently, many women were wary of having children because of the sacrifices involved, said the professor, adding: "The British male is not as bad as his Italian counterpart."

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