Academic journal article Population

Choosing the Time of Year for Births: A Barely Perceptible Phenomenon in France

Academic journal article Population

Choosing the Time of Year for Births: A Barely Perceptible Phenomenon in France

Article excerpt

Birth seasonality was far more pronounced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than it is today. Several extra-individual factors have been put forward to account for these former fluctuations in France and elsewhere, including the availability of food at different times of the year, observance of the liturgical calendar(1) and the realities of rural life (Dupâquier, 1976; Doblhammer et al., 2000). When, in the 1950s, the February-March peak was replaced by a spring surplus of births, researchers once again came up with an extra-individual explanation, suggesting that, as a result of the introduction of paid holidays in 1936, partners were henceforth more "available" in August, resulting in a higher number of conceptions at that time of the year (Dupâquier, 1976; Holland, 1989). Although seasonal fluctuations in births gradually became weaker, there continued to be a relatively high spring peak in the 1970s and 1980s (Régnier- Loilier, 2010). While a number of deterministic explanations for this pattern continued to circulate, the hypothesis of strategic thinking by couples also gained ground. Doubt was cast on the theory that marriage seasonality influences birth seasonality (Desplanques and de Saboulin, 1986), as well as on the putative link between summer holidays and conception. By the late 1980s, the daily pattern of births showed that most conceptions no longer occurred during the holidays but just as people were returning to work (Besnard, 1989). Furthermore, it was hard to explain why seasonality should be stronger in the decades before 1960 (Cancho-Candela et al., 2007) and weaker afterwards, given that there had not been any profound modification in the holiday calendar.(2)

An explanation based on the seasonal planning of births was then suggested (Leridon, 1973; Prioux, 1988; Sardon, 1988; Besnard, 1989). The legalization of contraception (Neuwirth Act, passed by the French Parliament in 1967), and its subsequent widespread use made it easier for couples to choose the time of year to have a child. This hypothesis was all the more plausible because most people opted for long-term, medical methods of contraception (pill and IUD; Bajos et al., 2004), rather than traditional methods requiring renewed vigilance each time a couple had intercourse. This meant that if a couple wished to conceive, the partners first had to discontinue contraception. The act of conception was therefore preceded by the decision to discontinue the pill (generally at the end of a cycle) or to make an appointment with a doctor (to have the IUD removed). As the approximate duration of pregnancy is common knowledge, it was reasonable to believe that, by the end of the 1970s, a nonnegligible proportion of couples were timing conception in order to achieve a spring birth.

In view of French women's clear preference for spring births (Régnier- Loilier, 2004), confirmed in a regional survey (see Box), plus the introduction of over-the-counter ovulation tests, it seemed logical to expect a strengthening of birth seasonality, with an increase in the birth rate between March and June. In the late 1990s, a sharper seasonal profile of births was indeed visible among the most highly educated women (Bobak and Gjonca, 2001). There was every reason to suppose that this model would be emulated by their peers, as had happened with medical methods of contraception, which were first adopted by women at the top of the social ladder (Toulemon and Leridon, 1992) before percolating down to the rest of the population (de Guibert-Lantoine and Leridon, 1999). In actual fact, however, the very opposite occurred. The recent change in birth seasonality, with the peak shifting from spring to autumn and losing its amplitude (Régnier-Loilier, 2010), would appear to contradict the notion of birth timing by prospective parents. Drawing on exhaustive data from the registry of births and the results of a national survey conducted in 2005 (see Box), this paper investigates the evidence for and against a strategy of monthly birth planning among future parents. …

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