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U.S. births fall, and coronavirus could drive them down more

This Feb. 16, 2017, photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. U.S. birth rates dropped for the fifth year in a row in 2019, producing the smallest number of babies in 35 years, according to numbers released May 20 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Seth Wenig / AP)
This Feb. 16, 2017, photo shows newborn babies in the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. U.S. birth rates dropped for the fifth year in a row in 2019, producing the smallest number of babies in 35 years, according to numbers released May 20 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Seth Wenig / AP)
By Mike Stobbe Associated Press

NEW YORK – U.S. births continued to fall last year, leading to the fewest number of newborns in 35 years.

The decline is the latest sign of a prolonged national “baby bust” that’s been going on for more than a decade, and some experts believe the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy will suppress the numbers further.

“This unpredictable environment, and anxiety about the future, is going to make women think twice about having children,” said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chairwoman of obstetrics and gynecology at Emory University.

The latest numbers were released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report is based on a review of more than 99% of birth certificates issued last year.

The CDC found the number of births fell about 1% from 2018, to about 3.7 million. Birth rates continued to fall for teen moms and women in their 20s.

Aside from an uptick in 2014, U.S. births have been falling every year since 2007, when a recession hit the country.

Experts say there are a number of causes, but chief among them are shifting attitudes about motherhood: Many women and couples delay childbearing and have fewer kids once they start.

The economy is a factor, but not because of short-term cycles in hiring. Many jobs are low-paying and unstable, and that coupled with high rents and other factors have caused women and couples to be more cautious about having kids, said Dr. John Santelli, a Columbia University professor of population and family health.

It’s unclear what will happen to births this year, said Brady Hamilton, the CDC report’s lead author. The impact of the last few months’ events won’t become clear in maternity wards until late this year or early next, he said.

Santelli said it’s possible births will go up, at least among some groups. Access to birth control and abortion has become more difficult, and some homebound couples might find themselves with greater opportunity to conceive, he said.

But others say it’s more likely births will plummet.

The idea that there will be a lot of “coronababies” is “widely perceived as a myth,” said Hans-Peter Kohler, a University of Pennsylvania fertility researcher.

The debate most demographers are having is not about whether there will be a decline, but whether it will be lasting, he said.

“The decline due to COVID-19 might be different given the extent and severity of the crisis and the long-lasting uncertainty that is caused by it,” Kohler wrote in an email.

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