So many women in Nebraska, Iowa and nationwide have delayed having children that birthrates have hit their lowest point in many decades.
As of 2011, the most recent year that data are available for Nebraska and Iowa, birthrates had hit record lows dating to at least 1915 in Iowa and 1925 in Nebraska. Nationwide, the rate in the most recent year available, 2010, dropped to its lowest level in 70 years.
Melinda and Jason Sommerfeld of west Omaha are among the many young couples who have decided to proceed with caution when it comes to starting a family.
“We did choose to delay,” Melinda Sommerfeld said Wednesday. “We wanted to make sure we didn't get ourselves in some sort of predicament.”
Keeping families fairly small — two children is the norm — is a common choice in the United States today. Birth control is reliable, and the era in which large families were needed to work small low-tech farms is long gone. For the short term, economic uncertainty also has suppressed birthrates.
Raw numbers of births also declined in 2011 in Nebraska and Iowa. Nebraska's 25,722 births was the lowest total since 2002. Iowa's 38,204 was the lowest since 2003.
“During hard economic times, fertility tends to go down,” said Susan Stewart, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University.
The Sommerfelds, who married in 2005, didn't want to start a family in a shaky economy. They had a mortgage to pay, husband Jason went back to college to complete his bachelor's degree, and the couple longed to travel to the Bahamas.
“You don't know what a baby's going to cost,” Melinda Sommerfeld said. “They do take money.”
By 2011, the Sommerfelds felt more secure. The Bahamas journey was behind them. The husband had that bachelor's degree, and the wife had been in account services for an advertising agency for a couple of years. The time was right.
The Sommerfelds now have two little boys — 19-month-old Graeson and 8-month-old Noah.
Dr. Carl Smith, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said birth control has become increasingly effective over the past few decades, contributing to the declining birthrate.
For instance, Smith said, a small birth-control implant placed in a woman's upper arm releases a hormone that prevents ovulation and halts sperm transport. That option has been available for about 15 years.
Iowa State's Stewart said that in the early 1900s, married women stayed at home, and producing many children “was considered good and helpful” to the family, she said.
The birthrate dipped in the late 1920s into the Great Depression. In Iowa, it hit a low of 15.9 births per 1,000 in 1933, then shot up to 25.3 in 1947, after World War II had ended.
Nebraska showed similar trends. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, it wasn't rare for the annual birthrate in Nebraska to hit 24 or higher.
But those rates gradually melted away and a slow, fairly steady decline dropped the rate to 14 in 2011 in Nebraska and 12.5 in Iowa.
Reports also show the following:
» Births to Douglas County women 15 to 19 years of age in 2011 were the lowest, 525, in at least 10 years.
» Nationwide, the teen birthrate declined more than 3 percent per year since 1991, the recent peak year.
» The 2011 Nebraska report said the average age of women having their first child increased from 24.5 in 2000 to 25.2 in 2011.
Haley and Michael Armstrong, both 28, wanted financial stability before having a baby. The high school sweethearts from Elkhorn will have been married seven years in June.
They had a house built in the Elkhorn area last year and took a cruise to Alaska. Haley's sister had a baby, Tyler, in June.
“I think as a woman, you know,” Haley Armstrong said. “Once I saw Tyler, and he came into our lives, it just kind of made more sense.”
Haley Armstrong is due to have a boy in May.
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