Number of babies born falls by 4% while average age of mothers rises to 30

Pregnant Belly 3 Benjamin Earwicker

ONS reports largest drop in births for 40 years and says reduced job hopes and benefits may be to blame

The number of babies born in England and Wales fell by 4.3% last year, the largest percentage annual drop for almost 40 years, and the average age of mothers has risen to 30 for the first time, new figures reveal.

Benefit changes, uncertainty about employment and restricted career and promotion opportunities because of temporary, part-time and zero-hour contracts, could be factors in the drop in live births, the Office for National Statistics says.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: "UK mothers are now on average older than women elsewhere in the world when they have their first baby."

The ONS stated: "Reforms by the government to simplify the welfare system, which have resulted in some significant changes to benefits, may have influenced decisions around childbearing."

Welfare changes announced in 2011 and 2012 included the bedroom tax, which reduced housing benefit for those living in properties classed as larger than needed, the removal of child benefit where one parent earned more than £50,000, and the cap on the total amount of benefits claimable by working-age people. The changes came into effect last year.

The ONS reported that the number of live births in England and Wales last year fell to 698,512 from 729,674 in 2012 (a decrease of 4.3%). This contrasted with the increasing number of births that has been reported each year since the low of 2001, with the exception of a 0.3% fall in 2009.

Between 2001 and 2012 live births rose by 23%. The fall in live births in 2013 represented the largest percentage annual decrease since 1975.

In most developed countries women have been increasingly delaying childbearing to later in life, which has led to rises in the mean age at first birth. It has meant the average age of mothers in 2013 topped 30 in England and Wales for the first time since records began in 1938. in 2012 was 29.8 years.

"The average age of mothers has been increasing since 1975, with increasing numbers of women delaying childbearing to later ages," said the ONS. "This may be due to a number of factors such as increased participation in higher education, increased female participation in the labour force, increasing importance of a career, rising opportunity costs of childbearing, labour market uncertainty, housing factors and instability of partnerships."

Furedi said the reasons for delaying motherhood included the time it took "to achieve educational and professional development, as well as financial security". It may also be a reflection of how seriously couples take the responsibility of having children in the 21st century. We need to support women's choices to have children at the age that is right for them. We certainly need policies in place that enable women to better combine family and working life, and in particular ensure that younger mothers don't suffer setbacks."

The proportion of babies born outside marriage dipped slightly, from 47.5% in 2012 to 47.4% last year. The percentage of babies born in England and Wales to mothers from outside the UK reached a record high, hitting 26.5%, compared with 25.9% in 2012 and 11.7% when these figures were first collected in 1969.

Powered by article was written by Mark Tran, for The Guardian on Wednesday 16th July 2014 18.10 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010