BERLIN (Reuters) - The number of births in Germany fell to a post-war low last year despite government incentives meant to reverse a population decline in the European Union's biggest economy, and analysts blamed a lack of sufficient child care support.
A third of all babies born in Germany, still the EU's most populous member state, came from immigrant families, the analysts said, noting that without them the overall figure would have been much lower.
The preliminary data released by Germany's Federal Statistics Office showed 663,000 children were born in 2011, down from 678,000 in 2010.
"As in every year since 1972, the number of people who died was greater than the number of children born. In 2011 the difference amounted to 190,000 people and in 2010 to 181,000," the office said in a report.
Demography experts have forecast that Germany's population could shrink to about 50 million by 2050, based on current trends, and say France and Britain - which now have about 60 million each - could overtake it later this century.
Michaela Kreyenfeld from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research attributed Germany's declining birthrate, one of the lowest in Europe, to conservative attitudes towards child care and the role of the mother.
"Women are perfectly integrated within Germany's labor market but when it comes to babies, everyone expects a mother to stay at home and take care of the children. This of course deters women from becoming mothers," she said.
The situation is slightly different in formerly communist eastern Germany where, Kreyenfeld said, child care was very good and compatibility of family and career was more deeply rooted.
Germany's birthrate peaked in 1964 when a total of 1,357,304 children were born in the capitalist West and communist East.
West Germans were already having fewer children in the 1970s because of improving conditions for women and their easier access to education, said Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.
"So fewer children were born then, meaning that today we lack potential parents for potential children," he said.
Without immigrant families, the number of newly born children in Germany would reach only 400,000 in a country of 82 million, Klingholz said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has no children herself, introduced relatively generous child benefit payments in 2006, making it easier for women to return to the workplace after having children.
Last month, however, in a move critics say entrenches a more traditionalist view of women's roles, Merkel's coalition also approved a bill on childcare payments that would give parents an allowance to keep their toddlers at home rather than sending them to nursery.
Critics say this policy - championed by Merkel's largely Roman Catholic governing partners in the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) - contradicts the government's earlier focus on welfare payments for working mothers.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich