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For the first time since 1997, the total number of births to unwed women fell (about 2 percent, from 1.72 million in 2008 to 1.69 million in 2009).

But “because total births declined more than unmarried births, the percentage of births to unmarried mothers rose slightly in 2009,” the NCHS said. This meant unwed childbearing marked yet another new record of 41 percent.

When it comes to the babies themselves, the number of infants born prematurely fell again, to 12.18 percent of all births, which is welcome news.

Still, if you look at a chart tracking birthrates from 1990 to the present, you can see the Great Delaying in U.S. childbearing.

The biggest portion of births in 2009 are to women in their late 20s, as always. But the maternity deck shuffled for the next four groups: Now the second highest birthrate (by a hair) belongs to women in their young 30s, displacing women in their young 20s to third place.

And instead of teen mothers having the fourth-highest birthrate, it’s women aged 35 to 39.

Teens still far, far outproduce women in their 40s (duh), but the latter are creeping up: In 2009, there were 105,813 births to women in their young 40s, and 7,934 births to women aged 45 to 54. And 2,087 of the births to those “eldest” mothers were firstborns.

A nation’s strength and prosperity is tied to robust fertility and healthy family culture. Birth trends like these cannot be watched too closely, or taken for granted as benign or progressive. A demographic maxim says fertility delayed is fertility denied.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at