How often did parents see their children die?

The death of a young child has always been the most devastating tragedy mothers and fathers could experience. How common was it?

Here ends the joy of my life,” ends the diary entry of John Evelyn after his son Richard died on January 27, 1658.

Richard was their first-born child. He died young: “5 years and 3 days old onely, but at that tender age a prodigy for witt and understanding; for beauty of body a very angel; for endowment of mind of incredible and rare hopes.”1

Despite their “inexpressible grief and affliction” after Richard’s death, John and his wife, Mary, continued to have children together. They had another son – also named Richard – who died as a newborn. Again they were heartbroken, but it wasn’t the end of it. Together, they had eight children; seven of them died.

The diaries of other parents recall similar hardships. Elizabeth Duncombe and her husband, the English politician William Brownlow, lived through some particularly tortuous periods: in just eight years between 1638 and 1646, they had seven children. All of them – Thomas, Francis, Benjamin, George, James, Maria, and Anne – died. William’s diary records speak of the parents’ heartbreak. When George – their fifteenth child – died in 1642, his father wrote, “Thou O God hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces”.2 In total, they saw 13 of their 19 children die.

The death of a young child has always been the most devastating tragedy mothers and fathers could experience.3 But just how common was it? How many parents saw their children die?

The historical data shows that most parents saw a child die

The visualization gives us the answer.4

Shown is the data for Sweden, but you can switch the view to any other country in the world using the ‘Change country’ button on the interactive chart. Sweden is a country that has particularly good long-run demographic data as it was the first country to establish an office for population statistics: the Tabellverket, which was founded in 1749.5

The total height of the blue and red areas shows the average number of children born per woman – the fertility rate.

The area in red shows the answer to our question: it is the average number of children per woman who died in the first five years of their life.6

Throughout most of the 19th century, Swedish women gave birth to more than four children, on average. During this period, the child mortality rate was around one-in-four (though at times much higher). This meant that most parents saw one of their children die.

Parents losing one child, on average, is terrible. But this number actually underestimates the average experience of parents for three reasons:

First, many children died when they were older than five. John and Mary Evelyn lost their son, Richard, when he was older than five. More generally we document this in our post on child mortality in the past.

Second, this data presents the average number of children per woman. But not every woman was a mother – this means that many mothers had (and lost) more children.

Third, this data is restricted to more recent periods of history where we have good demographic records. By this time, the child mortality rate had already declined. Parents were likely to have lost even more children in the centuries before the annual data became available.

For some countries it is possible to go back further in time. In Sweden, in the mid-18th century, 40% of children died before the age of 15. In France, the mortality rate was about 45% at the same time and in Bavaria, in modern-day Germany, half of all children died. At that time, the average number of children per couple was often higher than 5, 6, or even 7 so that parents often saw several of their children die.7

This has changed dramatically over the last century. Child mortality and fertility rates have both fallen.

As the data in the chart shows, for Sweden, the average has gone down to 0.006 child deaths per woman. What was once very common, became rare.

In this visualization, you can change the country for which this data is shown and explore the trends in countries around the world. To compare the number of children lost per woman for several countries – and see the data on a world map – you can use this visualization. In most world regions, it has become rare for parents to lose a child, but this is unfortunately not true everywhere.


The life stories of the Evelyn’s and of Elizabeth Duncombe and William Brownlow are heartbreaking, but they were unfortunately not unusual. Almost all parents saw one or several of their children die.

When I write about the history of child mortality, some commentators speculate that the loss of a child might have not been painful in times and places where it’s common. This is not reflected in the diary entries of these parents. Seeing one’s child die has always been terrible for parents, also during the long period of humanity’s history when the death of a child was very common.

The text of this article was updated on May 18, 2022.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. William Shakespeare (1564–1616)


  1. From John Evelyn – ’Memoirs of John Evelyn’.

  2. Quoted after Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Weaker Vessel: Women in history’, in which she gives an account of the grieving of parents throughout history.

  3. For a more comprehensive treatment of the grief of parents for their children in Medieval times see Nicholas Orme (2001) – Medieval Children.

    See also Mark Golden (1988) — Did the Ancients Care When Their Children Died? In Greece & Rome, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Oct., 1988), pp. 152-163.

  4. The data shown in this visualization is calculated based on a selection of the historical estimates of fertility and child mortality presented at (see the sources tab in the chart for more information).

  5. See the history of Statistics in Sweden.

  6. I calculated this by multiplying the number of children per woman by the mortality rate of children under five.

  7. The metric that I would ideally need here is the average number of children per woman (or per couple). This is sometimes reported as average family size, but I was not able to find this data. But I could find the total marital fertility rate.

    The sources for the three countries are the following:

    Sweden:The total marital fertility rate of 7.62 children per married woman is taken from Table II (page 40) in M. Anderson (Ed.) (1996) – Population Change in North-Western Europe, 1750–1850.

    Extramarital children were rare in Sweden at the time. Anderson estimates it at 2%.

    The under-15 mortality rate is taken from the Human Mortality Database and corresponds to the average of the annual observations from 1750 to 1780.Bavaria, Germany:

    This data is taken from John Knodel’s research: John Knodel (1970) – ‘Two and a Half Centuries of Demographic History in a Bavarian Village’. Population Studies 24, no. 3 (1 November 1970): 353–76.

    According to his study married women had on average 5.6 children and saw on average almost three (2.8) of their children die before they were 15 years old. Knodel also includes data for an earlier period, but I have not included the data prior to 1749 as Knodel writes “The figure shown for couples married between 1692 and 1749 is undoubtedly spuriously high, resulting from the frequent omission of infant and child deaths from the parish registers during the period.” Knodel suggests that even the data after 1750 (which is shown here) is likely an underestimate of the true mortality.

    France:In France the average married woman had about 8 children in the period 1740 to 1769. This is the total marital fertility rate taken from Table II (page 40) in M. Anderson (Ed.) (1996) – Population Change in North-Western Europe, 1750–1850.

    For France I’m not aware of a mortality rate estimate for this particular period. I am therefore relying on an average between an earlier and a later estimate. Both are reported in Volk and Atkinson. For the period 1600-1700 the authors report an estimate of 40-50% and for 1816-50 a mortality rate of 44%.

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    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {How often did parents see their children die?},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2019},
    note = {}
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