South Jersey seems to be more fertile ground than the nation at large.

The United States is in the midst of a baby bust, with birth numbers and birth rates dropping since 2007. But locally, births have held steady and even occasionally increased, state and hospital data show.

The National Center for Health Statistics’ preliminary report on births in 2011 states that the number of births in the United States in 2011 was 3,953,593, about 1 percent less than in 2010 and 8 percent less than the peak for U.S. births in 2007.

In addition, the preliminary general fertility rate for 2011 was 63.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, “the lowest rate ever reported for the United States,” the study says.

Breaking it down more, birth rates declined from 2010 to 2011 for women ages 15 to 29, though rates rose for women between 35 and 44 and were unchanged for women in their early 30s and late 40s.

“It’s a boom-and-bust cycle with the economy, normally, and the birth rate will go up and down as well,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College. “Household formation is put off because people are not secure about their finances, young people living at home is quite common. ... In most cases, (having children) is discretionary.”

The available local numbers, however, show a different story.

Data from the state Department of Health are available only up to 2009, and they show that New Jersey’s birth numbers and birth rate also began a decline in 2007, going from 115,920 to 112,428 in 2008 to 109,543 in 2009.

But for mothers who live in Atlantic County, the numbers show a growth in births over the same period, from 3,607 in 2007 to 3,686 in 2008 to 3,742 in 2009. The birth rate, calculated differently from the National Center for Health Statistics — births per 1,000 residents, not just women ages 15 to 44 — also increased in Atlantic County, from 13.3 to 13.8.

Cape May County’s birth rate per 1,000 residents stayed stable from 2007 to 2009, the state reported, and increased from 2008 to 2009

Meanwhile, up-to-the-moment numbers from AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center show that despite some ups and downs, births have increased at the hospital since 2007. There were 2,347 births at the Mainland Campus maternity ward in 2007, increasing to 2,567 in 2009 before dropping to 2,373 in 2010 and increasing again to 2,532 in 2011 — far from the continuous drop seen in the country at large.

“Last year, (births) went up significantly,” said Laurie Trongone, director of AtlantiCare’s childbirth center. Though with 2,025 births for the first three quarters of 2012, “We will have a little bit less this year. ... But you would think we really should be down. We’re just not seeing that.”

Included in the 2012 birth numbers will be the daughter of Nicole Walling, 36, of Egg Harbor Township, who was admitted to the childbirth center last week.

“When he and I got married, we always planned on three or four children,” Walling said of herself and her husband, John, 41. “We had one right away — I got pregnant on our honeymoon — and now we’re on our third baby. It’s all really according to plan.”

The trend coincides with what Mandi Craig, owner of Bellyssimo Prenatal Imaging & Wellness Centre in Egg Harbor Township, has noticed over the past few years.

“We were kind of waiting for the baby bust to hit the South Jersey area,” Craig said. “But truth be told, I really don’t see that happening here. We’ve seen a steady pace and a little bit of an increase.”

Why the difference? “I’m not sure,” she said. “The economy definitely hit here as much as anywhere. I do know that people are not just having their first babies. There’s a lot of second babies, and we’re seeing a lot of repeat clients the last few years. We’re heading into a lot of ‘Round 2’ babies.”

Perniciaro, meanwhile, said the local trend upward is counterintuitive to everything that explains the drop nationally.

“That’s kind of puzzling,” Perniciaro said. “Certainly employment hasn’t gotten better (locally), it’s gotten worse, and there’s even been a reduction in the overall population in Atlantic County. I know that compared to 2003 to 2005, it’s down, but if anything it should still be going down. ... I guess the folks still around are having kids.”

The state numbers do show a mixed bag when broken down by municipality, with 10 Atlantic County towns showing an increase in the birth rate from 2007 to 2009 and eight showing a decline. Cape May County was also mixed, and Cumberland County saw a decrease overall from 2007 to 2009.

Looking at potential future enrollment in school districts, as Perniciaro has done, and the numbers are certainly lower for incoming kindergarten classes in most districts than what was predicted. The babies born since 2008, of course, haven’t hit kindergarten age, yet.

For districts with slowing birth rates, “do you do what Sea Isle did and close the school or merge districts like Stone Harbor and Avalon?” he asked. “It will be a long, long time before anybody sees any kind of change in school population growth at all.”

Number of births at the Roger B. Hansen Center for Childbirth at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus

2007    2,347

2008    2,427

2009    2,567

2010    2,373

2011    2,532


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