Determinants of the sex ratio at birth: review of recent literature

Soc Biol. 1988 Fall-Winter;35(3-4):214-35. doi: 10.1080/19485565.1988.9988703.


PIP: The fact that more boys are born than girls (104-107 boys for every 100 girls) has been known since 1662. Factors determining the sex ratio at birth rate are of 2 kinds: factors determining the primary sex ratio, i.e., sex ratio at conception, and factors determining the survival of the embryo in utero. Y-bearing and X-bearing sperm may have different motility or different survival time. The age of the ovum at fertilization and the chemical balance of the female genital tract have an effect on sex ratio at conception. High levels of circulating gonadotropins may imply a lower sex ratio at birth as well as a higher rate of dizygotic twinning. Male conception also appears to be higher early and late in the menstrual cycle. The fact that women exposed to higher coital rates conceive earlier in the menstrual cycle may account for the greater number of boys born during wars. Prenatal male mortality is reportedly highest between gestational months 3-5, lower between months 6-8, and higher again st term. Also, immunological interaction between mother and embryo may account for some sex selective spontaneous abortions. 3 sociodemographic determinants of sex ratio at birth are thought to be maternal age, paternal age, and birth order. Higher prenatal male mortality may be correlated with socioeconomic conditions, since higher socioeconomic status lowers prenatal mortality in general. The effects of parental age, birth order, and parity are less clear. Race is also a factor, since the sex ratio at birth for blacks is lower (102-104) than for whites (106). 14 univariate and 19 multivariate studies of effects of maternal age, paternal age, parity, birth order, race, and socioeconomic status on sex ratio at birth, with sample sizes in the millions from various countries have been analyzed. More boys are born to younger parents, and lower order births have a higher proportion of males than do higher order births. In the multivariate analyses, when the effects of paternal and and birth order are controlled for, the effect of maternal age weakens, and the effect of paternal age appears to be stronger. The effect of birth order remains but is very small, and the effect of race persists independent of any effect of other variables. Maternal age, parity, and birth order are positively correlated with proportion of male stillbirths. The results of the multivariate analyses show all of the effects to be very small, but that maternal age has no effect on sex ratio at birth; paternal age and birth order have a negative effect, and the racial effect persists independent of any other effect. The racial effect is clearly biologically determined at conception because blacks have higher levels of circulating gonadotropin and therefore a higher probability of conceiving girls. Parents in higher socioeconomic classes are more likely to have sons, but the effect is largely due to the excess male mortality during most of the gestational period.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Birth Order
  • Female
  • Fetal Death
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Determination Analysis*
  • Socioeconomic Factors