US births have fallen for the fourth year in a row with experts calling it more proof that the weak economy has continued to dampen enthusiasm for having children.

But there may be a silver lining: The decline in 2011 was just 1 per cent – not as sharp a fall-off as the two to three per cent drop seen in other recent years, government figures show.

“It may be that the effect of the recession is slowly coming to an end,” said Carl Haub, a senior demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, DC-based research organisation.

Most striking in the new report were steep declines in Hispanic birth rates and a new low in teen births. Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by the flagging economy, experts say, and teen birth rates have been falling for 20 years.

Falling births is a relatively new phenomenon in this country. Births had been on the rise since the late 1990s and hit an all-time high of more than 4.3 million in 2007.

But fewer than four million births were counted last year – the lowest number since 1998.

Among the people who study this sort of thing, the flagging economy has been seen as the primary explanation. The theory is that many women or couples who are out of work, underemployed or have other money problems feel they can’t afford to start a family or add to it.

The economy officially was in a recession from December 2007 until June 2009. But well into 2011, polls show most Americans remained gloomy, citing anaemic hiring, a depressed housing market and other factors.

The report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is a first glimpse at 2011 birth certificate data from state health departments. More analysis comes later but officials don’t expect the numbers to change much.

Early data for 2012 is not yet available, and it’s too soon to guess whether the birth decline will change, said the CDC’s Stephanie Ventura, one of the study’s authors.

Studies show though that since 2007, larger percentages of sexually active teenage girls are using the pill and other effective birth control. Studies also show a small decline in the proportion of girls ages 15 through 17 who say they’ve had romantic relationship, Santelli noted.

The new birth report also noted a fourth straight decline in a calculation of how many children women have over their lifetimes, based on the birth rates of a given year.

A rate of a little more than two children per woman means each couple is helping keep the population stable. The US rate last year was slightly below 1.9.

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