msnbc.com news services
updated 11/23/2004 3:04:48 PM ET 2004-11-23T20:04:48

Women in their 30s and early 40s had higher birth rates in 2003, while births among teenagers fell for the 12th straight year, federal health officials said Tuesday.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the rising birth rates among older women show a continuing trend of delayed marriage and childbirth.

“These women are actively engaged in education and pursuing their careers” in their 20s and 30s, said Brady Hamilton, a statistician with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Among women 30 to 34 years old, birth rates rose 4 percent last year to 95.2 births per 1,000 women from 91.5 births in 2002, the preliminary CDC data showed. The birth rate was up 6 percent for women aged 35 to 39, and 5 percent for 40- to 44-year-olds.

The birth rate for women between the ages of 45 and 54 was unchanged, the CDC report found.

Among women aged 20 to 24, birth rates were down 1 percent, while rates increased 2 percent for women in their late 20s.

Meanwhile, the birth rate among teens 15 to 19 years old dropped to 41.7 births per 1,000 from 43 births in 2002, suggesting that this age group was practicing abstinence and more responsible sexual behavior, Hamilton said.

Last week, the CDC reported the birth rate among younger females aged 10 to 14 reached a 58-year low in 2002.

Caesareans deliveries set record
The latest report also found that more than a quarter of babies born in the United States in 2003 were delivered by Cesarean section, the highest rate on record,

Nearly 4.1 million births were recorded in the United States in 2003, a slight increase over 2002. Roughly 1.13 million, or 27.6 percent, were Cesarean deliveries. The rate is up by a third since 1996, said the report, which is a preliminary look at U.S. births last year.

A Cesarean section is major abdominal surgery with serious potential side effects. The report does not distinguish between those that were medically necessary and those that were elective.

The question of whether it should be performed when natural childbirth poses no threat to either mother or baby is controversial among obstetricians.

One unexplained trend in the annual report is the continued increase in the rate of premature and low birthweight babies even though the teen birth rate dropped, fewer women were smoking while pregnant, and more women were getting timely prenatal care.

The rate of babies born after less than 37 weeks of gestation rose slightly to 12.3 percent, the report said, and those weighing less than 5.5 pounds increased slightly to 7.9 percent last year.

The figures were compiled from birth records in all 50 states, the Atlanta-based CDC said. 

The rate of babies born after less than 37 weeks of gestation rose slightly to 12.3 percent, the report said, and those weighing less than 5.5 pounds increased slightly to 7.9 percent last year.

Some of the rise in these early births can be tied to the increasing number of older mothers, who naturally and through fertility treatments are more likely to have twins and triplets. These babies are more likely to be born early and weigh less, said Joyce Martin, an epidemiologist and author of the report.

“But it’s important to note that the increase in preterm and low birthweight is not restricted to older moms and for women just having singletons. So something else is going on here, too,” Martin said.

Among other statistics in the report:
—Births to unmarried mothers rose slightly.

—Women of Hispanic origin had the highest birth rate, 22.9 per 1,000 people, compared to the overall rate of 14.1.

—Two teenage girls younger than 15 gave birth to at least their fourth child.

—There were 1,512 first-time mothers between the ages of 45 and 54.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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