Desired Number of Children

May 27, 2010 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Bob Walker for letting me know about a new paper by Charles Westoff on the Desired Number of Children 2000-2008. You can download the paper at

This report is a review of reproductive preferences in 60 countries based on data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) conducted between 1998 and 2008. Several measures of preferences are used: the number of children considered ideal, the proportion of women who want no more children, the planning status of recent births, and the Wanted Total Fertility Rate. For those countries that have conducted more than one survey, trends in reproductive preferences have been documented. For a subset of mostly sub-Saharan African countries, men’s reproductive attitudes are also described. A review of the most recent DHS estimates of levels and trends of reproductive preferences indicates that the number of children desired is declining in most of the developing world with the exception of some countries in western and middle sub-Saharan Africa where, on the whole, an average of 6.0 children are still desired. In southern and eastern Africa, the mean number desired is 4.5. In contrast, in Asia and in North Africa the average is 2.9 and in Latin America and the Caribbean 3.0 children. In most of the 60 countries reviewed, there has been a decline in the Total Fertility Rate which is due largely to a decline in the number of children wanted rather than to a reduction of unwanted births. The highest proportion of unwanted births is in Latin America and the Caribbean, as high as 39 percent of all recent births in Bolivia. Among men, the number of children desired follows a similar pattern to that of women but typically at slightly higher levels. There is little evidence that this gender difference is diminishing. Although the long-familiar negative association between women’s education and reproductive preferences continues, there is evidence of a decline in preferences among women with no formal education even in sub-Saharan Africa but more strongly in Asia and Latin America. A special analysis of unmet need and reproductive preferences focuses on several countries in sub-Saharan countries where unmet need is low because preferences are very high (Chad, Guinea, Mozambique, Niger and Nigeria). The number of children desired is associated with child mortality, Muslim affiliation, women’s education and empowerment, and exposure to the mass media.

Here’s the summary and conclusions page, with some of the relevant sections highlighted.

Summary and Conclusions

The main objective of this report is to review the most recent estimates and trends of reproductive
preferences from the large number of surveys in the countries included in the DHS project. This is an
update of earlier DHS comparative reports with the same focus but includes some new directions as well.
The number of children desired or considered ideal remains highest in western and middle Africa
with an average of 6 children desired. About 70 percent of women who have 4 children still want more
children in this region. In southern and eastern Africa, the picture is significantly different with an
average of 4.5 children desired and an average of 42 percent of women with 4 children who want more.
The desired number of children is much lower in countries in North Africa, Asia, Latin America and the
Caribbean, ranging from 2 to 4.

In most of the countries in Asia and North Africa, there is a clear trend toward wanting no more
children while in Latin America and the Caribbean intention to avoid further childbearing has already
reached high levels with the exception of Guatemala and Haiti. This trend toward a desire for fewer
children is also evident in southern and eastern Africa but the trends are mixed in western and middle
Africa with numerous countries showing little indication of moving toward family limitation.

The prevalence of unwanted births is highest in Latin America and the Caribbean with an average
of 24 percent of recent births and lowest in western and middle Africa at 6 percent on average. The
Wanted Total Fertility Rates are the lowest in Asia and North Africa with more than half of the surveyed
countries below replacement levels. At the opposite extreme, 7 of the 17 countries in western and middle
Africa have WTFRs above 5.0. In almost all countries with repeat surveys, the decline in the TFR is due
to the reduction of the number of children wanted rather than to unwanted fertility.

Analysis of the reproductive preferences of men is focused here on the countries of sub-Saharan
Africa where male surveys have become common. The estimates of the number of children desired by
men show the same pattern of country differences as among women with the highest in western and
middle Africa and lowest in southern and eastern Africa. As observed in an earlier report, men desire
more children than women with only some suggestion that this gender difference may be decreasing over

One of the new directions pursued in this report is to study the trend of reproductive preferences
among women with no education. How indispensable is the well-known association of women’s
education with the number of children desired? There is evidence that in about one-third of the sub-
Saharan African countries studied the proportion of uneducated women who do not want any more
children is increasing. In some of the Asian countries, this trend among the uneducated sector of the
population is very evident.

Analysis in this report of the association of reproductive preferences with unmet need for family
planning was prompted by the observation that although low levels of unmet need in most countries
reflect increases in family planning use, some countries with low unmet need also have very low
contraceptive prevalence. These are countries where very high proportions of women simply want more
children and where the average number of children desired ranges from 5.9 to 9.1. In Chad, Guinea,
Niger and Nigeria most women have never used a contraceptive method and say that they do not intend to use one. The covariates of both the number of children desired and intention to use a method in these
countries were analyzed. The strongest predictors are the Muslim – non-Muslim distinction, low
education and experience with child mortality. Mass media exposure is also relevant.

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