Background: Several birth characteristics are associated with high mortality risk: very young or old mothers, short birth intervals and high birth order. One justification for family planning programs is the health benefits associated with better spacing and timing of births. This study examines the extent to which the prevalence of these risk factors changes as a country transitions from high to low fertility.
Methods: We use data from 194 national surveys to examine both cross section and within-country variation in these risk factors as they relate to the total fertility rate.
Results: Declines in the total fertility rate are associated with large declines in the proportion of high order births, those to mothers over the age of 34 and those with multiple risk factors; as well as to increasing proportions of first order births. There is little change in the proportion of births with short birth intervals except in sub-Saharan Africa. The use of family planning is strongly associated with fertility declines.
Conclusions: The proportion of second and higher order births with demographic risk factors declines substantially as fertility declines. This creates a potential for reducing child mortality rates. Some of the reduction comes from modifying the birth interval distribution or by bringing maternal age at the time of birth into the 'safe' range of 18-35 years, and some comes from the actual elimination of births that would have a high mortality risk (high parity births).