ALMOST half of all births in Northern Ireland are now to unmarried parents – suggesting marriage is no longer the priority it once was for couples.
Government statistics released show 43% of births last year were to unwed parents – the highest figure on record.
It means of the 25,300 babies born here in 2012, 10,879 were delivered to parents who weren't married. Thirty years ago the figure was just 8%.
It is a trend that has crept up by roughly 10% per decade, sitting at 22% back in 1992.
Northern Ireland keeps its reputation as the most conservative part of the UK, however, when it comes to having children out of wedlock. In Scotland, 51% of births last year were outside marriage, and in England and Wales the figure was 47%.
With benefits and working credits the same for couples whether they are married or living together, it is thought the change relates to social trends as opposed to any financial benefits. The only couples that would benefit are those failing to declare they live together.
Other key findings of the report, released yesterday by the Department of Finance, show the number of births to teenage mums fell to the lowest on record in both deprived and more affluent areas, reflective of trends across the UK and Ireland. The number of births to teenage mothers last year was 6% lower than 2011 (1,170 births) and 27% lower than a decade ago (1,502 births), the official report said.
In the last decade, the number of births to mothers aged under 17 has decreased by 26% (149 births in 2002) to 110 births last year.
Continuing the trend towards later child-bearing, more than half of all births registered last year (52%) were also to mothers aged 30 or more. This contrasts with 30 years ago when less than one-third of births (32%) were to mothers in this age group. The number of births to women over 40, however, remains largely static at 3.7%.
David Marshall, from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), which compiled the report, said: "In overall terms, the number of births has remained broadly stable over the last five years.
"However, the number of births to older mothers continues to rise and the number to younger mothers, especially teenage mothers, falls. These demographic changes will have an impact on society and future public policy."
Jackie Valentine, from support group Parenting NI, said she believed the increasing number of births to unmarried parents was simply a social trend, and one that was visible in their advice office. She said marriage was not always the priority for parents concentrating on raising their children.
"People get married later these days," she said. "Weddings cost a fortune and people do not want to do it on half measures. People put it off or are happy as they are."
Ms Valentine said she believed better education was also responsible for the number of single mother births going down and that better education was also leading to more career-orientated women giving birth later.
"People are planning their families better, however parents over 30 and 40 are definitely more tired, you don't have the energy you have when you're younger," she said.
Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, welcomed the reduction of teenage mothers.
"I think we in Northern Ireland have been very innovative in the way we work with young people," she said, adding that there were good community-based programmes and that teachers were being trained by the Public Health Agency.
"What we don't want is someone in the Department of Health thinking we have cracked this," she said. "We could be doing better with more sustainable funding."
In 2012, the average age of all mothers was 30.1 years, compared with 29.5 years in 2002, 28.1 years in 1992, and 27.6 years in 1982.
The average age of first-time mothers continues to increase, and was 28.0 years last year compared with 26.8 in 2002, 25.7 in 1992, and 24.5 years in 1982.