Do fertility transitions influence infant mortality declines? Evidence from early modern Germany


The timing and sequencing of fertility transitions and early-life mortality declines in historical Western societies indicate that reductions in sibship (number of siblings) may have contributed to improvements in infant health. Surprisingly, however, this demographic relationship has received little attention in empirical research. We outline the difficulties associated with establishing the effect of sibship on infant mortality and discuss the inherent bias associated with conventional empirical approaches. We offer a solution that permits an empirical test of this relationship while accounting for reverse causality and potential omitted variable bias. Our approach is illustrated by evaluating the causal impact of family size on infant mortality using genealogical data from 13 German parishes spanning the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Overall, our findings do not support the hypothesis that declining fertility led to increased infant survival probabilities in historical populations.

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  1. 1.

    All statistics quoted here can be found in Knodel (1974).

  2. 2.

    For an account of changes in German economic conditions and living standards, see Baten (2003).

  3. 3.

    This measure indicates the ratio of fertility compared to that of Hutterite women (the population with the highest fertility levels on record), adjusted for age distribution within childbearing ages (Knodel 2002).

  4. 4.

    Our results are robust to using the probit model.

  5. 5.

    Once again, we obtain almost identical results when using a Probit IV estimator in the spirit of Rivers and Vuong (1988). We have also considered generalized additive models (Wood 2000) which allow for nonlinear effects of sibship, including in the presence of endogeneity (Marra and Radice 2011). We reach the same conclusions as for the linear effect models.

  6. 6.

    We thank a referee for this valuable suggestion.

  7. 7.

    We have also performed an equivalent analysis with the elapsed time between the first and second births. This variable fails the instrument validity test.


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Mark McGovern acknowledges funding from the Program on the Global Demography of Aging, which receives funding from the National Institute on Aging, grant no. 1 P30 AG024409-09. Alan Fernihough’s research is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 249546. We are grateful to Dan Anderberg, Kevin Denny, Paul Devereux, Cormac Ó Gráda, George Alter, Tommy Bengtsson, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at Harvard and the 2013 Edinburgh FRESH meeting for helpful comments and advice.

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Correspondence to Mark E. McGovern.

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Fernihough, A., McGovern, M.E. Do fertility transitions influence infant mortality declines? Evidence from early modern Germany. J Popul Econ 27, 1145–1163 (2014).

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  • Demographic transition
  • Family size
  • Early life conditions
  • Infant mortality

JEL Classifications

  • D13
  • I15
  • J13
  • O12