How common was it was for parents to lose a child?

Our World in Data presents the empirical evidence on global development in entries dedicated to specific topics.
This blog post draws on data and research discussed in our entry on Child Mortality.

Here ends the joy of my life’ ends the diary entry of John Evelyn after the writer’s son Richard died on January 27,1658. Evelyn describes in moving words the “inexpressible grief and affliction” that he and his wife Mary suffered. Richard was their first-born child “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

Mary and John Evelyn continued to have children together. They had another son, also named Richard, who died at an even younger age, as a newborn. Again they were heartbroken; but it wasn’t the end of it. Of their eight children, seven died.

The diary records of other parents tell us of similar hardship. The English politician and barrister William Brownlow and his wife Elizabeth Duncombe had 19 children together. Thirteen of them died. Some periods of their life were particularly tragic: in just eight years between 1638 and 1646 they had seven children. All of them – Thomas, Francis, Benjamin, George, James, Maria, and Anne – died in a row. The parents’ heartbreak is obvious from William’s diary records: when George, their fifteenth child, died in 1842 his father wrote “Thou O God hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces”.2

The death of a child has always been the most tragic calamity mothers and fathers could experience.3 How common was it that parents saw their children die?

The visualization presents the best estimates available.4 Shown is the data for Sweden, but you can switch the view to any other country in the world using the option ‘Change country’. I am showing Sweden because it is a country for which we have particularly good long-run demographic data. Sweden was the first country to establish an office for population statistics: the Tabellverket, which was founded in 1749.5

The total height of the orange and purple area shows the average number of children born per woman – the fertility rate – up to the present.

The area in purple shows the answer to our question; it is the average number of children who died within the first five years of life, per woman. I calculated this by multiplying the number of children per woman by the mortality rate of children under five.

Throughout most of the 19th century Swedish women gave, on average, birth to more than four children. Child mortality in this period was around one-in-four, and at times much higher, so that on average every woman lost one child under the age of five.

Every woman losing one child on average is terrible, but in fact this number underestimates the average mother’s experience for three reasons: First, many children died when they were older than five – just as the Evelyn’s son, Richard; second, this data presents the average number of children per woman, but not every woman was a mother meaning many mothers had (and lost) more children; and third, the data presented here is restricted to the period for which we have better data and these are mostly periods in which the mortality of children had already declined (this is certainly the case for Sweden where the mortality rate was higher than one-in-four in the 18th century).6

Going further back in time is possible for some countries – I’ve done some calculations using estimates from a number of sources. In Sweden, in the mid 18th century, the fertility rate for married women was 7.6 children and the share of children who died before the age of 15 was 44%.7 This means that at the time, the average Swedish mother lost around 3.3 children. For other countries the estimates for the 18th century are similar. In France the average married woman had 8 children and saw around 3.6 of them die; and in the region that is Germany today the average married woman probably saw more than 4 of her children die.8

With the decline of child mortality and fertility over the last couple of centuries this has changed dramatically, and in rich countries like Sweden these tragic events have become very rare. As the data in the chart shows, for Sweden the average has gone down to 0.006 child deaths per woman. An experience that just a few generations ago was so common, and that almost every woman suffered through it, is now so rare that today it is only a reality for 1-in-180 Swedish women.

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 visualisation. In most world regions it has become rare for parents to lose a child, but this is unfortunately not true everywhere.

Conclusion

The experience of Mary and John Evelyn, and Elizabeth Duncombe and her husband William Brownlow are heartbreaking, but in our long past seeing children die was part of almost all parents’ experience and often not only once.

When I write about child mortality some commentators respond by speculating that in times and places where many children die the loss of a child does not hurt parents as much. The mortality that these two couples experienced was higher than the average – which was likely between two and four dead children – and show that parents did not, in any circumstances, find it bearable to lose a child. There is no reason to suppose – no evidence anywhere, including that of common sense – that parents were ever, at any point in the past, indifferent to the happiness and well-being of their children.

Losing a child has always been terrible for parents, whether it was as common as it was in the past or much rarer as it is today.


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.

– Shakespeare [The words of King John after his son dies at the age of eleven]