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updated 11/17/2011 1:31:12 PM ET 2011-11-17T18:31:12

Health officials say birth rates for America's teens and young women hit new lows last year.

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The U.S. birth rate dropped for the third straight year, with declines for most ages and all races, according to a federal report released Thursday. Teens and women in their early 20s had the most dramatic dip to the lowest rates since record-keeping began in the 1940s.

Also, the rate of cesarean sections stopped going up for the first time since 1996.

Experts suspected the economy drove down birth rates in 2008 and 2009 as women put off having children. With the 2010 figures, suspicion has turned into certainty.

"I don't think there's any doubt now that it was the recession. It could not be anything else," said Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. He was not involved in the new report.

U.S. births hit an all-time high in 2007, at more than 4.3 million. Over the next two years, the number dropped to about 4.2 million and then about 4.1 million.

Last year, it was down to just over 4 million, according to the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For teens, birth rates dropped 9 percent from 2009. The reasons for that may include a decline in the number of teens having sex, plus a rise in the use of contraception among teens, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Citing new research from the CDC, the paper reported that between 2006 and 2010 about 43 percent of unmarried teenage girls and 42 percent of unmarried teen boys have had sexual intercourse "at least once," by age 19, down from 45.5 percent of girls and 45.7 percent of boys in 2002.

For women in their early 20s, the number of births fell 6 percent. For unmarried mothers, the drop was 4 percent.

Experts believe the downward trend is tied to the economy, which officially was in a recession from December 2007 until June 2009 but remains weak. The theory is that women with money worries — especially younger women — feel they can't afford to start a family or add to it.

That's true of Mary Garrick, 27, an advertising executive in Columbus, Ohio. She and her husband, David, married in 2008 and hoped to start having children quickly, in part because men in his family have died in their 40s. But David, 33, was laid off that year from his nursing job and again last year.

He's working again, but worries about the economy linger.

"It kind of made us cautious about life decisions, like having a family. It's definitely something that affected us," she said.

Many of the report's findings are part of a trend and not surprising, but a few did startle experts.

One involved a statistic called the total fertility rate. In essence, it tells how many children a woman can be expected to have if current birth rates continue. That figure was 1.9 children last year. In most years, it's more like 2.1.

More striking was the change in the fertility rate for Hispanic women. The rate plummeted to 2.4 from 3 children just a few years ago.

"Whoa!" said Haub, in reaction to the statistic.

The economy is no doubt affecting Hispanic mothers, too, but some young women who immigrated to the United States for jobs or other opportunities may have left, Haub said.

Another shocker: The C-section rate. It rose steadily from nearly 21 percent in 1996 to 32.9 percent in 2009, but it dropped slightly to 32.8 last year.

Cesarean deliveries are sometimes medically necessary. But health officials have worried that many C-sections are done out of convenience or unwarranted caution, and in the 1980s set a goal of keeping the national rate at 15 percent.

It's too soon to say the trend has reversed, said Joyce Martin, a CDC epidemiologist who co-authored the new report.

But the pace of increase had slowed a bit in recent years, and assuming the decline was in elective C-sections, that's good news, some experts said.

Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology, agreed that the economy seems to be the main reason for the birth declines. But she noted that it's possible that having fewer children is now more accepted and expected.

"Having one child may be becoming more 'normal,'" she said.

Related content:

Stepping up: Teen boys using condoms more often

Amid a weak economy, fewer people are having babies

Weak economy causes some to cut back on kids

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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