Academic journal article Population

Changes in the Seasonality of Births in France from 1975 to the Present

Academic journal article Population

Changes in the Seasonality of Births in France from 1975 to the Present

Article excerpt

Al though births in the seventeenth century followed a strong seasonal pattern, this seasonality gradually weakened, before re-emerging in the early 1970s (Dupâquier, 1976). In the past, births were very numerous at the end of winter (February and March), but much less common in June, July and December. The seasonal profile then changed, with both a decrease in amplitude and a progressive shift in the mode to May, then to July, and finally September. These changes cast doubt upon naturalist interpretations whereby human reproduction is seasonal,(1) and several complementary explanations have been given to account for past fluctuations.

The first of these came from Moheau (1778), who wrote that "it seems that the greatest number of men owe their existence to the period when vegetation is most abundant". The decrease in fertility during periods of famine (Leridon, 1973) supports this explanation. More generally speaking, the literature review by Bronson (1995) follows the same reasoning: environmental factors, particularly seasonal variations in available food sources over the year, appear to influence ovulation.(2) Seasonality of births was also viewed as the probable consequence of the Christian calendar, which required the faithful to abstain from any "conjugal relations during religious feasts and throughout Advent and Lent. Breaking these prohibitions was tantamount to exposing oneself to Divine retribution and the risk of giving birth to monstrous offspring" (Besnard, 1989). Conceptions were thus less numerous during these times of the year.(3) Likewise, the fact that marriage was generally a precondition for conjugal life and first sexual intercourse(4) may account for a part of the variations observed (de Saboulin, 1978; Greksa, 2003),(5) although this effect was not very visible due to the small proportion of first births among births as a whole (Leridon, 1973). Jacques Houdaille, for his part (1979, 1985), saw a link between the monthly distribution of births and rural life. For the many seasonal labourers who worked during times of peak farming activity, major tasks such as harvesting, threshing, ploughing, etc. were times of extreme fatigue, and of unavailability or even separation of spouses.

Gradually, however, couples distanced themselves from religious precepts (Lutinier, 1987), marriage was no longer a systematic marker of the onset of reproductive life (Desplanques and de Saboulin, 1986; Prioux, 1988), diets became more varied over the year, and the proportion of agricultural workers in the working population dwindled. All these factors contributed to the decrease in seasonal variations over the centuries. The seasonal pattern also changed, with the February-March peak giving way, from the 1950s, to a surplus of births in spring, clustered around the month of May, a shift that reflected the introduction of paid leave in France in 1936 (Dupâquier, 1976; Calot, 1981b; Sardon, 1988).

More recently, in the early 1970s, the idea of a planned birth season was suggested, to account for the peak of births in spring (Leridon, 1973). The legalization of contraception (1967) and the generalized use of the contraceptive pill allowed couples to plan births more precisely, including at a sub-annual level. At that time, the springtime peak was interpreted as the possible outcome of couples wanting to have children during warmer weather or, in the case of teachers, preferring to combine maternity leave and school holidays (Prioux, 1988; Sardon, 1988; Besnard, 1989; Régnier-Loilier, 2004).

Using exhaustive data from civil records (Box), recent trends in the annual distribution of births in metropolitan France (mainland France and Corsica)(6) since 1975 will be described. Several possible explanations for recent changes will then be proposed. Although the seasonal profile shifted appreciably over time, changes took place very gradually. The seasonal pattern for a given year is generally very similar to that of neighbouring years, with only a few exceptions. …

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