WASHINGTON, March 28 (AP)-- Women in their 20s helped fuel a baby boomlet that pushed U.S. births up 2 percent in 1998, the first increase in several years, said a government report released Tuesday.

The increase reflected growth in the number of women entering childbearing years. These daughters of early baby boomers are having their own kids, but getting married first is a not necessarily a prerequisite to becoming a parent, the report shows.

Births to unwed mothers, on the rise for years, hit an all-time high in 1998 and accounted for nearly half of all babies born that year, reported the National Center for Health Statistics. But unlike the early 1990s, when teenagers were having children at alarming rates, today's unwed mothers are more likely to be in their 20s and 30s.

Researchers attribute the change to a big drop in teen births, confidence in the booming economy and more relaxed attitudes about unwed mothers.

"The social-disapproval factor has definitely lessened," said Stephanie Ventura, lead author of the report, which was compiled from state birth data.

There were 3.94 million births in 1998, compared with 3.88 million children born in 1997. The fertility rate, a measure of births among women of childbearing age, was 65.6 births for every 1,000 females, up from 65 births per 1,000.

These were the first increases in births and fertility rates since 1990, when 4.1 million children were born and the fertility rate was 70.9 births per 1,000 women. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of births fell 7 percent as women waited longer to have children and teen births declined amid the availability of more reliable contraceptives, an emphasis on abstinence, and fears about AIDS.

Some 1.29 million babies were born to single women in 1998, up 3 percent from the prior year and the highest number reported since the government started collecting birth data in the early 1900s.

One reason for the rise was a larger population of unmarried women of childbearing age. The number of single women between 15 and 44 rose to 29.2 million women in 1998 from 28.6 million in 1997.

Unwed women in their 20s and 30s had higher birthrates, and that was true for both white and black women. Birthrates for unwed Hispanic women in that age group fell, the report showed.

Birthrates for all women in the 20s and 30s was also on the rise. After falling during the 1990s, the birthrate for women between 20 and 24--the principal childbearing ages--rose 1 percent, to 111.2 births per 1,000. The rate for women age 30 to 34 rose 2 percent, to 87.4 births per 1,000 women--the highest rate since 1965.

Jacqueline Darroch, senior vice president for research at Alan Guttmacher Institute, a private research group, said the rise in unmarried moms doesn't necessarily mean that children don't have fathers, because many women are living with, but not marrying, their partners.

"Nonmarried does not necessarily mean that it's the mother alone without a father," said Darroch, citing a government study that showed about 4 percent of women, or about 2.6 million, are living with partners.

Donna Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the trend was cause for concern.

"The increase in births to unmarried mothers, as well as the increase in teen mothers who smoke, are troubling," Shalala said.

Other findings:

- Smoking among pregnant teens increased, especially among blacks.

- The proportion of women beginning prenatal care in the first trimester continued to rise--an encouraging sign because early care can increase the chances of having a healthy baby.

- Multiple births continued to increase, a phenomenon tied to the use of fertility drugs and more older women giving birth.

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