Quebec's decade-long, miniature baby boom has come to an end.
For the first time since 2002, the province recorded fewer births in 2010 compared to the previous year. Mothers delivered 88,300 babies last year, 300 fewer than the year before.
Demographers are far from alarmed, saying the numbers represent stagnation more than a meaningful drop in the number of births. But the numbers do mark the end of the longest run of increasing fertility rates in Quebec since the real baby boom ended in the 1960s.
Since 2002, the number of births in Quebec has risen nearly 23 per cent. The birth rate rose 17 per cent for the same period, to 1.73 babies per family.
"I wouldn't talk by any means of a dramatic drop here. It doesn't show the tendency has been reversed, but there is a stagnation," said Chantal Girard, a demographer with Quebec's statistics agency.
With Canada's economy thriving for much of the 2000s, most of the country saw a gentle rise in birth rates. Quebec's increased more than most. Shifting values may mean younger women are more willing to have children. Many older women who were in their 20s in the 1990s waited until the 2000s to have their children. (The average age of delivering a first baby rose steadily into the decade.)
Quebec's cheap daycare and generous parental-leave program introduced in 2006 are widely credited with contributing to a spike in births.
"Counting the number of births in a year is easy. Sorting out the motivations in the 30-year fertility period of a woman is not so simple," Ms. Girard said.
Experts say births may be flattening because the rate of women waiting until their late 30s and 40s to have children may no longer be a growing phenomenon. Also, economic uncertainty in recent years may have caused some families to hesitate.
Government programs may have reached the end of their capacity to spur further growth, according to Richard Marcoux, a sociologist with the University of Laval in Quebec City.
He points out that surveys consistently show Quebeckers would like to have 2.4 children, on average. With a current birth rate around 1.7, there is still room to grow with the right incentives, he said.
"There is a will to have children, it's quite widespread, but people don't always reach their goal. Current programs have gone so far, but other obstacles are still preventing people from having the number of children they desire," Prof. Marcoux said.
Quebec saw a short-lived spike in births in the 1980s after it introduced a system of baby bonuses. He described that rise as cyclical, adding that it's unlikely the 2000s growth trend will immediately reverse.
Quebec started paying for in vitro fertilization treatments last year. Quebec has about 3,500 in vitro fertilization pregnancies every year and the government hopes the program will add 2,000 more.
Most Canadian provinces saw a rise in birth rates in the 2000s, through 2007. Alberta and Quebec led the way while the Maritime provinces lagged behind. Prof. Marcoux credits a robust economy with an extremely low unemployment rate for helping families grow in Alberta. He said government programs and a decent economy have been the main fuel in Quebec.
"Ultimately it's a sense of security and stability that allow families to grow," he said.
Ms. Girard, who said her agency, the Institut de la statistique du Québec, is three years ahead of the rest of Canada in producing updated statistics, said it's unclear yet whether growth rates have levelled off elsewhere. But statistics show the rest of the country followed Quebec in lockstep when fertility began to rise in the last decade.