The number of babies born in the United States ticked up slightly in 2021, compared to 2020. And so did the age of first-time moms, at a historic 27.3 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 50,000 more babies were born compared to 2020, after years and years of a downward trend. But it’s still not enough to herald an upward trend — and overall, births are still well below where they’ve been in the past.

Replacement rate for fertility is 2.1 births per woman of childbearing age. In the U.S., the rate has fallen to 1.7. The CDC report says births increased among white and Hispanic women and fell among Black, Asian and Native American women.

One factor impacting the birth rate is the age at which women first become mothers. And the mean reached a high of 27.3 years in 2021, up from 27.1 in 2020. The report said “the increase in the mean age in 2021 reflects, in part, the decline in the number of first births to women in their teens and early 20s and the concurrent rise in first births to women in their late 20s, 30s and 40s.”

How many babies are born impacts the economy in a number of ways. It helps determine if schools open or close in a neighborhood. And it indicates what kind of pressure a generation might face as it supports safety net programs for the one before it. A robust population makes it easier to meet workforce demands and support social safety net programs.

Changing birth patterns

As CNN reported, “Birth rates increased among women ages 25 to 44, while the teen birth rate reached a record low.”

In final data for 2021, released Jan. 31, the National Vital Statistics System in the CDC looked at maternal age, live-birth order, race and ethnicity, marital status, tobacco use, prenatal care and more.

It noted 3,664,292 births in the United States, a 1% increase from 2020. The general fertility rate was 56.3 births per 1,000 women of child-bearing age, which is considered 15-44.

The birth rate for females 15-19 dropped 7% between 2020 and 2021, while for those 20-24, it dropped 3%. Among those 25-44, the birth rate rose between 2% and 5%, the report said.

While the total fertility rate — the number of births total for women — rose slightly, to 1,664.1 births per 1,000 women in 2021.

The numbers were a seesaw, going up and down depending on the question, the CDC found. Among birth highlights in 2021, compared to 2020:

  • Birth rates dropped for unmarried women, but increased for married women.
  • The share of women who received prenatal care in the first trimester was up to 78.3% in 2021.
  • The share of pregnant women who smoked dropped to fewer than 1 in 20.
  • Caesarian births rose to nearly 1 in 3 in 2021.
  • Medicaid paid for just over 4 in 10 births.
  • One of the biggest jumps was preterm births, rising from 4% to 10.49%.
  • Low birthweight went up, too, to more than 1 in 12.

Completing the family

While the age at which a woman has her first baby matters, the age at which a woman has her last baby is also significant, as researchers at Bowling Green State University reported last year.

Per the Deseret News at the time, “The beginning and the ending of having children are tied together in ways that shape the future economy, a woman’s ability to have the number of children she wants, the coming workforce and even whether neighborhoods build or shutters schools. Questions of maturity and resources — not all financial — come into play. And this particular landscape has been changing for many years.”

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The researchers looked at women ages 45-49, so near the end of their childbearing years, and asked when they last had a child. The median age for last birth was 31, with racial and ethnic variation. The youngest at last birth was 30, the median age for Black women. Hispanics and “other” were the oldest, at 32.

More educated mothers tended to be older than less educated mothers when they last had a child.

That women delay having children impacts the number of children they will have and thus family size, Pamela S. Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, told the Deseret News.

A Guttmacher Institute survey reported 1 in 3 women delayed having children or opted for fewer than they had planned because of the pandemic. The institute said that was more common for women who had lost income and resources in the pandemic.

Since people don’t often consider the end of the childbearing years, Bowling Green’s Karen Guzzo, acting director of the Center for Family & Demographic Research and a sociology professor, said that “we are going to see a lot more people who are going to butt up against being in their important career stages.” She said in 2021 that many flourish in careers in their 40s and 50s, but that could be more difficult if they are raising their children and meeting their needs in that period. More are also likely to be sandwiched between their children and their aging parents in that case, as well.

As the Deseret News reported a few months ago, demographer Lyman Stone, a scholar with both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, “worries most that women will not be able to have the number of children they desire because of various factors — a kind of human tragedy that could also lead to people being lonelier and maybe poorer as they grow old.”