‘Baby fever’ and other cues to family formation

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‘Baby fever’ and other cues to family formation

Anna Rotkirch
Research Professor and Research Director at the Population Research Institute of Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland. She has published extensively on family relations and fertility and served as Demographic Rapporteur to the Finnish Government.”

Fifteen years ago, my research team in Finland conducted the first study of “baby fever”, defined as the strong longing to have a child of one’s own. We found that most Finns were familiar with that emotion. Only around one in five women had never experienced it. Among men, the proportion who had never longed for a child was almost twice as large. Yet three in five men had strongly longed for a child at least once in their lives, disproving the common idea that baby fever would be a female prerogative. A sizeable minority of both sexes had often felt baby fever. Similar results were later reported from the United States and the Czech Republic. Our analysis also indicated that the occurrence and strength of baby fever was related to how many children the respondent had or intended to have.
Fifteen years later Finland has become globally famous for its rapidly declining birth rates. The total fertility rate has dropped by 28 per cent since 2007, from 1,87 to an expected 1,31 in 2023. This is well below the EU average of 1.5. Similarly low rates characterize Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as East Asia, but were not previously observed in the family-friendly welfare states of the Nordic countries. Although the Finnish case is extreme, similar trends are witnessed in many other countries which used to have relatively high birth rates.

What is going on? We decided to repeat the survey question about baby fever from earlier years. The answers are for the first time reported here, and appear quite dramatic. Today, Finns that have experienced baby fever have become a minority. Every other woman and almost two in three men have never longed to have a child. The proportion of people who say they have often longed for a baby has fallen by more than half. No wonder fewer children are being born.

¿Alguna vez ha tenido fiebre de tener hijos o un fuerte deseo de tenerlos?

Figure 1. ‘Have you ever experienced baby fever, or a strong longing to have a child of your own?’ Finnish 18-54 year old men and women in 2007 (N=1560) and 2022 (N=3131).

This finding made me pause. If we want to understand why in most countries young adults want fewer or no children, and what role policies could potentially have, we need to grasp what drives people to have children in the first place. While scholars of human reproduction are still far from a comprehensive answer, one key point can be suggested at this stage. In order to create a pronatalist environment, we should not focus on family policies, but on cues to family formation.

Fertility decline is not about national family policies

Once total fertility rates fall below 1.5, most governments want to act. Currently around 40 countries have introduced pronatalist policies aiming to stimulate the birth rate, and the number is increasing (Basten, Rotkirch & Sobotka 2022). The focus is almost exclusively to change family policies, such as extension of parental leaves and higher monetary compensations to mothers.

In Europe, especially Hungary has during the last years generously increased supports to larger families. The Hungarian government offers interest-free loans of around 35 000 euros which are forgiven if the mother has three children within five years’ time. Having four children relieves income tax for the rest of the mother’s life. Less mediatized, both Germany and Estonia have over the last decade implemented a broad package of parental leaves, early childhood education and monetary family benefits. Italy’s prime minister Georgia Meloni is now about to introduce new support for families in order, again with the hope to increase the birth rate.
This is excellent news for families. Supporting families with young children is arguably the single best policy for wellbeing and human capital development any society can make. As a solid body of research has shown us, combatting child poverty and promoting a safe and loving environment for every child will yield lasting and accumulating benefits to wellbeing, cognitive development, and prosocial behaviour throughout the entire lives of these children.
But here is the crux: increasing the traditional type of family policies does not increase birth rates. Neither Hungary, Germany or Estonia have had total fertility rates out of the league compared to similar neighbouring countries, such as Austria and the Czech Republic. True, the new family policies may have had some effect, such as stimulating the birth of second children in Estonia. They may also have helped avoid a collapse of birth rates. Yet the policies have not succeeded in their aim of raising fertility.

Several more authoritarian regimes also wish to prohibit access to contraception and induced abortion as a way to raise birth rates. In addition to the health risks and human suffering caused by such inflictions on women’s reproductive rights, these attempts also fail to reach their primary target. Among recent examples are Poland and Iran, where restrictions on access to abortion in recent years have failed to boost fertility rates.
Interestingly, even the politicians themselves appear to know they may not be on the right track. A telling example is when the city of Hong Kong recently introduced a cash stimuli to new parents. The sum was settled at a value equivalent to around 2500 euros, not around 5000 euros at was also suggested. The stated reason was that giving the double amount could “send the wrong signals to couples”. Yet these politicians knew very well that, firstly, the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of baby bonuses in today’s society are scarce, an secondly, that any compensation equaling a few months’ salary is not what will tip the scales in favour of having a child.
It is as if too many politicians are currently repeating the classic joke where a person is searching for their lost keys under the street lamp, even though they know that is not where they dropped them. What then is the suitable encouragement, and what sends the wrong message? What kind of signal would actually encourage people to have more children in today’s Western societies?

Cues to family formation
After our first investigations into baby fever, follow-up studies by psychologists concluded that ‘baby fever’ really is a separate emotion, distinct from for instant the urge to take care of others or to have sex. Crucially, baby fever is not a strong natural instinct, but one that arises due to biological, social and ecological factors. This reminds us that humans have not evolved to directly want to have children. In our evolutionary history, the sexual drive and the capacity to bond with children were enough to ensure that babies were made and taken care of. We are not hardwired to reproduce: instead, we have evolved to strive for resources and social status, and to be sensitive to a myriad of cues about when is the right time to have a child.

From this perspective it is important to note how differently the millennial generation appears to approach childbearing compared to baby boomers, who represent the majority of politicians currently defining pronatalist policies. Millennials, or those born roughly between 1980 and 1996, grew up amid rapid globalization and decline of institutionalized religion. This generation encountered increasingly fewer specific norms for the proper life course, apart from a heavy focus on wage work as the key to a good life. Notably, according to a large survey from the Pew Institute in the US in 2023, 71 per cent of Americans think having a career or a job you enjoy is very or extremely important in order to live a fulfilling life. Only 26 per cent think the same could be said for having children.
In other words, having children is not encoded as a central aspiration in life. While most people still say the ideally would like to have two children, the role of both marriage and childbearing appears to have shifted from a cornerstone to a capstone. Having a child is no longer the definition of adult life, but one of its possible culminations. For more young adults, parenthood presents itself as the final accessory to a successful life, instead of something you do anyway, like it or not.
People also appear to be extremely sensitive to when others around them have children. For instance, many of our respondents said they first ‘caught’ baby fever when a close friend or relative had a child, or after having their own first child. The near environment is important. Growing up with babies and small children, and seeing them born around you, may be a key ingredient for the wish to have a child at all. One woman, for instance, described being overwhelmed with baby fever during a lecture about neonatal health.

True, some adults say they longed for children since their teenage years, more or less intensely. Many also said their baby fever had emerged in no particular situations. Especially childless women approaching their 30s described it as an often surprising and unexpected wave of desire, “like a lightning from a blue sky”. This suggests that personality, hormones, and life stage play a role. However also in these instances unconscious cues – e.g. exposure to babies or pregnant women in your childhood, or just in a café you are passing — may have induced baby fever, also when the person could not pinpoint a certain situation.
In Finland, the recent unprecedented decline in births is associated with a simultaneous dramatic decline in baby fever, or really wanting children. Of course, also there too many young adults struggle with job security, affordable housing, obstacles relating to mental and physical health, and other socioeconomic and structural obstacles to childbearing. Yet my hunch is that the Finnish experience only serves to highlight what is happening elsewhere, too.
Professor Stuart Basten recently perceptively rephrased many government’s worries about fertility decline: “Low fertility is not a problem, it is just a phenomenon. The real problem is what kind of society makes people not want to have children.” If the current fertility decline is not caused by national family policies, it cannot be altered by changes to national family policies. We need to acknowledge that there is no simple easy policy fix to deep-seated cultural aspirations regarding what constitutes a meaningful life, or to subtle environmental cues and seeing your peers raising kids.

Yet governments can commit to consistently being baby friendly and family friendly. How young adults encounter babies and parents of small children, and how their lives appear to be – stressful and impoverished or meaningful – might play a much larger role for birth rates than any monetary bonus.