On the fiftieth anniversary of the biggest birth year in US history, the record burst. More babies were born in 2007 than in any year prior: 4,317,119, according to the CDC. Before that the record was an approximate 4,300,000 – set in 1957, the zenith of the baby boom. Birth rates were up in all age ranges except the very youngest and the very oldest, which held steady: fifteen year olds and fifty year olds and everyone in between were reproducing busily (the overall rise was 1%, with 30-34 year olds leading the pack at 2%).

So does a new boom loom? Not quite. While the numbers look alike, the birth rate differs dramatically: In 1957, it flew at 118 births per thousand women ages 15 to 44, while in 2007 it jogged along at 69.5 (and that included an expanding number of women over 45, using donor eggs).

Our population has grown, so relatively speaking fewer women had babies in 2007 than 50 years before (the hypothetical average woman had 3.8 kids in the late 50s, whereas now it’s 2.1). While that still adds up to more babies on the ground, they won’t make the huge proportional change in the population that the boomers did.

But it’s not the increase in population alone that spurs the current rise. From 2003 to 2007 the birth rate increased steadily if incrementally, from the all-time low of 64.8 per thousand in 2002 up to the new 69.5 – the highest since 1990.

So what’s up with this? The rise in teen births (this 1% adds on to a 3% rise among teens in 2006, interrupting the 34% decline that ran from the peak in 1991 until 2005) links in some measure to the failures of abstinence-only education and decreased access to birth control. But what about the rest?

Have all the star babies in the media spawned a copy cat trend? Or does the influence go the other way? While the tabloids belabor us with endless updates on pregnant celebrities, most people don’t reproduce just because Angelina does (except maybe the octo-mom). Jen, under big tabloid pressure, has held out for her own timetable.

But the baby fever in the tabloids does operate in a feedback loop with lots of other cultural factors that affect decisions around babies, like

•optimism over what looked until recently like a good economy
•a heightened anxiety about possible infertility (overplayed in the media, especially for women in their mid-30s)
•diminished access to and information about contraception and abortion
•nostalgia for the more relaxed pace of the family-filled fifties (in contrast to our busy lives)
•expectation that the work world will either live up on its own to recent promises to provide family-friendly options or that it could be made to do so

These factors and more skew differently for women (and their partners) in different age ranges, since their work, economic and fertility situations differ.

But 2007 is quickly fading into the deep past, and these trends may shift quickly. Though the tabloids continue to provide regular fertility scoops, recessions have historically been potent contraceptives–and then they pass. On the other hand, later would-be parents are likely to be less willing to wait for better times than their younger counterparts. Since they’re generally in more stable financial positions than younger folks, the downturn may be less of an issue. But not necessarily.

Stay tuned for the 2008 installment in our national fertility retrospect from the CDC toward the end of this year. But for the breaking story, keep an eye on the tabloids, on your neighbors, and on your own thoughts in this direction, for updates from the home front.


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