The fertility rate has fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1938, government figures have revealed, with the average rate of 1.5 children per woman. 

Total fertility rate (TFR) reached a record low

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that there may be a number of reasons for this, such as improved access to contraception, women choosing to have fewer babies and difficulties conceiving because of postponement in childbearing. 

The data showed that the total fertility rate (TFR) for England and Wales in 2020 fell to 1.58 children per woman – the lowest since records began in 1938, when the rate was 1.84.

The current TFR is 4.2 per cent lower than 2019 and 3.1 per cent lower than the previous record low in 2001, when the rate was 1.63 children per woman.

The TFR is the average number of live children that a group of women would bear if they experienced the age-specific fertility rates of the calendar year throughout their childbearing lifespan.

Trend towards later motherhood and smaller families

Responding to the data, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said: “This data reflects ongoing trends towards later motherhood and smaller family sizes. 

“There are a variety of reasons why women are choosing to delay having children and have smaller families – these include the desire to progress at work, an awareness of the ‘motherhood pay penalty’, and the ever-increasing cost of raising a child. 

“It may well be the hardship and economic uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends.”

The ONS data also showed that there were 613,936 live births in England and Wales in 2020, a notable decrease of 4.1 per cent from 2019.

Fall in fertility rates across all age groups

Furthermore, researchers found that fertility rates decreased across all age groups.

The average age of mothers at childbirth remained the same as 2019, at 30.7 years, following a gradual increase since 1973. 

Age-specific fertility rates (ASFRs) decreased across all age groups, including for women aged 40 years and over for the first time since 2013 (16.1 to 16.5 live births per 1,000 women from 2019 to 2020). 

Fertility rates for those aged 40 years and over had generally increased since the late 1970s.

Fertility rates for woman over the age of 40 decreased for the first time since 2013

For women aged 35 to 39, the rate was 59.8 live births per 1,000 women – down from 61.9 the previous year. 

For women aged 30 to 34, the rate fell from 104.7 to 102.5. For those aged 25 to 29, it fell from 88.3 to 84.6, while for women aged 20 to 24 it fell from 48.4 to 44.8. Finally, for women under 20, it fell from 11.2 to 10.0. 

In publishing the data, the ONS was keen to stress that birth registration services have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Researchers said: “There are small differences between the published provisional data and our usual annual births data but the main messages remain unchanged, with the total number of births continuing the decrease that we have seen in recent years.”

They said the 2020 birth registrations data is likely to show a small underestimate, adding: “The majority of the currently missing or late registrations will be included in our 2021 births release.”

Stillbirths fall to lowest ever levels

The ONS also published data on stillbirths showing that, in 2020, the number of stillbirths in England and Wales was 2,371 – a six per cent decrease compared with 2019 and the lowest since records began in 1927.

For a fourth consecutive year, the stillbirth rate in England and Wales reached a record low of 3.8 stillbirths per 1,000 total births. That was a decrease from 3.9 stillbirths per 1,000 total births in 2019.