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Whoa, baby: U.S. sees record number of births, but is it another boom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 25, 2008 - Kristin Armstrong began a new job right in the middle of a baby boom. It was a small boom at City Sprouts, perhaps. But with both her manager and the owner of the University City baby boutique pregnant, it was noticeable.

"I've only been here since January," she says.

And in that time, she's also seen a surge in women she doesn't work with having babies -- a fact that arguably comes with the territory.

But are there really more babies out there these days?

"It's definitely a finding," says Stephanie Ventura, a demographer and chief of the reproductive statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics.

There were 4.31 million births in 2007. In 2006, there were 4.26 million, according to provisional data from the NCHS.

"Those are big increases for one year," Ventura says.

It's also the highest number of births the country has seen since 1957, Ventura says, and 2006 saw a 3 percent rise in the total number of births from 2005.

But don't rush out and buy stock in cigar companies just yet: Many factors could be at work, and another number changes the story a little.

That number is the total fertility rate -- the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime -- and that's much lower than during the baby boom. In 1957, the total fertility rate was 3.8 children per woman. In 2006, it was 2.1.

So what explains all the babies?

The NCHS is trying to find out. Currently, it's conducting a national survey asking families if they're having more than the average two children, among other things.

Ventura expects those results in late 2009.

One factor that might prevent the increased births from being labeled a "boom" or even a "boomlet" is population size, Ventura says. Overall, the U.S. population was 172 million in 1957. As of July 2007, that number was 301 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since the population has grown, Ventura says, it's natural that the number of births has as well.

In St. Louis, St. John's Mercy recorded 6,597 births in 1998, says Beth Himes, executive director of nursing for women's services. In fiscal 2008, which ended in June, it had 8,311 births. "So there is a steady increase over time."

She's hearing about the rise from doctors, too. "Our physicians are telling us we need more space." And in the current hospital expansion, they're adding 33 postpartum beds, with a total of 99.

Himes has seen more couples choosing to have more than two children -- a change from the past few decades. And at City Sprouts, Armstrong sees moms on No. 2 and No. 3 as well.

Henry Maxeiner and his wife own the Ultrasound Zone LLC in Glen Carbon, Ill. They've been open only since December and see between 40 and 60 people a month who want to take a peek at their babies. Business has been steady so far, he says, but if there is a boom, "I wish they'd come our way."

A few other trends are clear, as well.

Since the late 1970s, many women have delayed beginning families until their late 30s and early 40s. That's still true, Ventura says.

And one thing that's making that more possible is better care for older moms and their babies.

At St. John's, five doctors specialize in maternal and fetal medicine, Himes says. That's a huge number for the staff, she says. Older moms face increased threats of gestational diabetes, hypertension and other risks. But their care has also gotten much better, Himes says, and the success rate of getting those moms to their due dates has increased.

Sierra Cortazzo owns Kangaroo Kids in Glendale. She sees a lot of older moms at her store, which offers resale and maternity support. In July, her business increased 13 percent over the same time last year. Unlike younger moms, Cortazzo says older moms come into her store knowing what they want.

But Himes sees that with all new moms, thanks to a proactive generation who have the Internet.

"We're seeing more educated moms," she says, as well as an increase in breastfeeding, which Cortazzo has seen as well.

Another increase -- the CDC's 2006 report found a rise in unmarried and teen pregnancies. The 3 percent rise in teen pregnancies was the first since 1991.

With all the numbers, it will take time and more research to tell if 2007's births are just a blip, Ventura says, or a real boom. "It's too soon to say."

But stay tuned. In 2006's report from the CDC, the fertility rates of the total population increased by 3 percent. That year's number was the highest fertility rate since 1971, the report said, "and the first time since then that the rate was above replacement -- the level at which a given generation can replace itself."

The number from 2007 appears to be 1 percent higher, which is a small increase, Ventura says.

And understanding all the numbers will be important not just so stores can stock their shelves, but so schools, hospitals and child care can prepare if a new boom is on the way.

Regardless of the numbers, Armstrong at City Sprouts isn't planning on jumping on the baby bandwagon any time soon, even if everyone around her is.

"No," she says. "Not me."

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis. 

Kristen Hare