Infant mortality in France

In the past, it was very common for babies to die before their first birthday. Today infant mortality in France is very low.

In 2015, fewer than four newborns (3,5) in 1,000 died before the age of one, according to provisional INSEE results for metropolitan France.

Two centuries of progress

In the eighteenth century in France, almost one baby in three died before the age of one, most often from infectious disease. At the end of the century, the situation began to evolve and infant mortality dropped rapidly, falling to one baby in six by 1850. The main reasons for this improvement were the successful spread of vaccination against smallpox, one of the main killer diseases at that time, and progress in delivery techniques and aftercare for newborns.

The ravages of industrial development in the nineteenth century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, infant mortality started climbing again. Uncontrolled industrial development and overcrowded housing favoured spread of epidemics, and the arrival of a new disease, cholera, caused several mortality peaks. The custom of handing babies over to wet nurses in the countryside was another cause of high infant mortality.

From the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the spread of asepsis and the introduction of public health policies targeting children and wet nurses, infant mortality started to fall again and this downward trend has continued ever since. The sole exceptions were a mortality peak in 1911 due to a hot summer with very high mortality from diarrhoea, a second peak in 1914-18 accentuated by the Spanish influenza epidemic, and a third peak in 1945 due to the milk shortages that followed the Liberation.

INED teaching kit,

Infant mortality is still falling

The steady decline in infant mortality in the second half of the twentieth century can be explained by the almost total eradication of fatal infectious diseases. France and most European countries fell below the threshold of ten deaths per thousand babies under age one in around 1980. Though infant deaths are now a rare and accidental event in all developed countries, further progress is still being made each year.


Online: December 2017