BERLIN (Reuters) - The economic crisis could halt the rising birth rate in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has boosted parental benefits to help fend off a looming demographic crisis, experts warned on Monday.
Germany, which is facing its worst recession since World War Two, is worried about the strain on the pension, health and welfare systems if its already aging population shrinks further. Some studies show the population could dip below 70 million by 2050 from about 82 million.
The German government earlier released figures showing a small rise in the number of babies born in 2008, but the pace slowed from the previous year when the country's birth rate rose for the first time in a decade.
"The current financial crisis will put a major burden on families and as they feel that, they will reduce costs and also the number of children," family expert Wassilios Fthenakis, a professor of social anthropology, told public broadcaster ARD.
Based on figures for the first nine months of 2008, up to about 690,000 babies were likely to have been born in the whole year compared to 685,000 in 2007, thanks largely to women between 30 and 40 having more babies, the government said.
There was a rise of around 12,000 babies born in 2007.
"These figures are no cause for euphoria but it does give us some confidence," said Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has seven children of her own.
She said the economic crisis need not lead to a collapse in births and vowed to help families more, arguing better education for young children and getting more mothers to work could boost the economy by up to 0.5 percent in the long run.
Merkel's government has in the last few years boosted parental benefits and extended childcare facilities.
"We have not yet seen a real change in the overall trend in births," Barbara Riedmueller, a professor of family issues at Berlin's Otto Suhr Institute said, noting the main problem was women deciding to have no more than one child.
At 1.37, Germany's birth rate, or the average number of children a woman bears, remains one of the lowest in the European Union and compares with 1.7 in Finland and 1.9 in France, said sociologist Hans Bertram, at the news conference.
Von der Leyen also said new benefits had led to a sharp rise in the number of fathers in Germany taking paternity leave.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Sophie Hares