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U.S. births rose last year but still fell short of pre-pandemic levels

Amy McCoy feeds a baby lunch at Forever Young Daycare facility in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., in 2021.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

U.S. births bumped up last year, but the number of babies born was still lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1% increase was a bit of a rebound from 2020, the first year of the pandemic, which witnessed the largest one-year drop in the U.S. births in nearly 50 years.

There were still about 86,000 fewer births last year than in 2019, according to a government report released Tuesday.

“We’re still not returning to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chair of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

U.S. births had been declining for more than a decade before COVID-19 hit, and “I would expect that we would continue to see small, modest decreases,” she said.

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Officials think last year’s uptick reflects births from pregnancies that had been put off during the uncertain early days of the pandemic. Deliveries were way down in January 2021, but improved as the year went on, said Brady Hamilton of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Much of the increase was seen in older moms.

Over the last three decades, birthrates have declined for women in their 20s and jumped for women in their late 30s and early 40s.

“These are births that were postponed,” said Hamilton, lead author of the new report.

The report is based on a review of nearly all birth certificates issued last year.

Some of the key findings:

—Nearly 3.7 million births were reported last year, up from roughly 3.6 million recorded in 2020.

—Birthrates dropped again for teens and for women younger than 25, but rose 3% for women in their early 30s, 5% for women in their late 30s, and 3% for women in their early 40s.

—Birthrates rose 1% for Latino women and 3% for white women. But they fell 1% for Asian women, 3% for Black women, and 4% Native American and Alaska Native women. That may reflect the pandemic’s harsher impact on the health and lives of some racial groups, experts said.

There’s a good reason the birthrate is declining in California and the U.S.. We’ve made parenthood way harder than it should be.

—The U.S. was once among only a few developed countries with a fertility rate that ensured each generation had enough children to replace itself — about 2.1 kids per woman. But it’s been sliding, and in 2020 dropped to about 1.6, the lowest rate on record. It rose slightly last year, to nearly 1.7.

—The percentage of infants born underweight and premature — at less than 37 weeks — rose 4%, to about 10.5%. It was the highest it’s been since 2007.

The premature birthrate had declined slightly in 2020, and health officials aren’t sure why the increase occurred. But older moms are more likely to have preterm births, as are women infected with COVID-19, said the CDC’s Joyce Martin, a study co-author.


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