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updated 1/14/2009 9:23:23 AM ET 2009-01-14T14:23:23

Forget about cutting back on cable and pricey cappuccinos. For some couples, a shaky economy means putting plans to grow or start a family on hold.

The economy is a leading source of worry for many Americans, with 80 percent saying they feel stress about their personal finances, according to an annual survey released recently by the American Psychological Association. With rising job cuts and home foreclosures, many financially crunched families have decided the time isn't right to have a child, or another child.

Leeanne Ridley, a mom of three in Pembroke Pines, Fla., has a bad case of baby fever. But right now, fearing the worst in the current recession, her family is putting dreams for a fourth child on ice.

“I have always been told that if you wait until you can afford to have kids, you never will,” Ridley says. “But I worry about falling so far behind we won’t be able to pay the bills. Another baby would not be the right path to take right now.”

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Birth rates do tend to drop in times of economic uncertainty. There was a dramatic decline in fertility rates following the Great Depression in the 1930s, when, for the first time in U.S. history, women went from having an average of three children the previous decade to two.

In each year after the country’s last four recessions, general fertility rates — calculated as the number of women of child-bearing age per thousand who gave birth — dipped slightly. For example, in the year following the 1973-1975 recession, fertility rates dropped from 68.8 in 1973 to 65 in 1976, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarly, following the 1980-1982 recession, the fertility rate fell from 68.4 in 1980 to 65.7 in 1983.

‘Wait-and-see attitude’
Although national birth data for the past few months isn’t expected until later this year, demographers are predicting a similar baby bust to follow the recent baby boom. How far the birth rate falls depends on how severe and long this financial crunch turns out to be, experts say.

“I expect to see some wait-and-see attitude towards children-bearing,” says Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a non-profit demographic organization in Washington, D.C. “But no one has a good idea what percentage it will be.”

From a demographic standpoint, a small drop in U.S. birth rates would not pose a concern. The U.S. birth rate has been at replacement levels for the past three decades, which, plus immigration, ensures the population remains robust.

There were 4.2 million babies born in 2006, the largest number in more than four decades, according to the latest CDC figures. More concerning would be an extreme change similar to many European countries, where birth rates have fallen below 1.5 children per woman, a point where the population ages and can’t sustain itself. 

“The No. 1 thing I would expect to see in this calendar year is postponement,” says S. Philip Morgan, a sociology professor at Duke University who studies fertility trends. “But if this translated into a long-term fertility drop, it would be a big deal,” Morgan says.

For example, a dramatic reduction in class size can pose a financial and organizational challenge for schools. The upside: 2026 could be a great year for your kid to apply to Harvard.

Baby chill
Although it's still early, some clinics around the country are seeing signs of a financially driven baby chill.

Birth control pillRichelle Shaw, a staffer at Henderson Ob/Gyn, a clinic just outside Las Vegas, reports a decrease in newly pregnant patients and an increase in requests for birth control, with many patients telling their doctors that now is not the right time to start a family.

Similarly, Dr. Randy Fink, a gynecologist in Miami, says he is also seeing a “drastic increase” in the number of women now asking about birth control. “I'm hearing several times a day that ‘now isn’t the right time,’ or even outright ‘we can't afford to have a baby now,’” says Fink.

One area of fecundity seems to be recession-proof so far: fertility clinics. For example, at the Cleveland Clinic, in vitro fertilization volume actually increased about 17 percent in 2008 over the prior year, with most of the increase coming the last few months of the year. Also, consults for new IVF patients seem to be holding steady as the new year starts, according to the clinic.

Other fertility clinics are holding up so far. “Ironically, the economic downturn has not impacted our practice’s patient volume,” says Bruce Shapiro, M.D., of the Fertility Center of Las Vegas. “It appears that people are re-evaluating what is most important — and family is key.”

A few economists have even proposed a different theory: As the economy tanks, birth rates could rise, as women who lose a job or face an unappealing employment market find it a convenient moment to have another child.

Stressful time to be pregnant
Without a doubt, in good economic times or bad, raising a child is an expensive proposition. According to “Expenditures on Children by Families,” an annual report put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a middle-class family making more than $77,100 will spend nearly $300,000 raising a child from birth to age 17 — and that doesn’t even take into account college tuition or inflation.

Those who are already pregnant are feeling the pinch.

Michelle and Paul Anderson, two Seattle-based high-tech professionals, were delighted to learn they were pregnant with their first child earlier this year, until they both found themselves laid off from their jobs and paying out-of-pocket for health insurance.

Friends and relatives, cash-strapped themselves, haven’t been able to help with baby gifts as much as they anticipated. “Being pregnant makes this very stressful on both of us,” says Anderson. We have trouble sleeping and we worry all the time.”

Allison Francis, 28, a Phoenix-based mother of a 5-year-old, says she and her fiancé are waiting to have a second child due to the high cost of health insurance. “We were going to try next year, but we are thinking we may wait until 2010,” she says. “Our son is begging us for a brother or a sister, so it's hard to think of waiting too long.”

For some families, postponing may mean just delaying a few months. For others, it could mean they never have children, due to age-related declines in fertility. Dr. Alan Singer, a family therapist in Highland Park, N.J., and a parenting columnist at HomeNews Tribune, fears that some couples who delay pregnancy for too long might end up finding themselves dealing with infertility issues, which brings its own potential problems, such as the high financial burden, the risks of multiple births and related health complications.

“There are consequences to that decision to delay,” says Singer.

Another mouth to feed
However, some families say they are expanding regardless of the economic situation.

“Children are as expensive as you make them,” says Julie Cole, 37, a Toronto-based mom of five with number six on the way.  Between her old baby gear and hand-me-downs, she doesn’t envision one more mouth to feed breaking the bank. 

“We can afford the things we really want to afford,” she says. “Financial priorities are all relative. I can’t afford to be driving two new cars and go on international holiday, but I can afford another baby. This (recession) wouldn’t make or break my decision.”

And Beth Golden, a Scituate, Mass., mother of two, still plans to have a third child, despite her relatives admonishing her about the cost of college tuition. “I just feel that bringing a child into the world is much more important to me than thinking about financial responsibilities 18 years from now,” she says. “The joy a child brings to my life cannot amount to the value of anything else.”

Even if families intend to hold off, as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go astray.

Morgan points out that nearly 50 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. are “unintended.” “I would expect some fertility downturn, but the spigot will not be turned off,” he says. “People will continue to smoke, drink — and have sex.”

Melissa Schorr is a Boston-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, Reuters Health, Working Mother, Self, GQ and People. She is the author of the young adult novel "Goy Crazy."

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