History of child- and youth-mortality rates

Especially with respect to the history of child- and youth-mortality rates, one should never judge the past by today’s standards.

There is a serious flaw in the reasoning related to children who died while attending Canadian residential schools. Was the mortality rate for children much better in general society?

Never blindly trust statistics that are shown in isolation and don’t permit comparisons. Invariably, such statistics present advocacy numbers that brush the history of objective mortality statistics out of existence.

The reality of mortality rates for children in developed nations during the interval the Canadian residential schools were in operation was that during the end of the 19th Century, in general society, about one-third of children died before reaching age 12.

That means that about one out of three children died in general society before reaching age 12, while some of the estimates of the mortality rate in Canadian residential schools cite a mortality rate of one in twenty. That means that children in residential schools may have experienced better life expectancies than those in general society or those living on reservations.


Many researchers have independently studied mortality rates for children in the past: in different societies, locations, and historical periods. The average across a large number of historical studies suggests that in the past around one-quarter of infants died in their first year of life and around half of all children died before they reached the end of puberty. Since then the risk of death for children has fallen around the world. The global average today is 10 times lower than the average of the past. In countries with the best child health today an infant is 170 times more likely to survive….

Historical estimates of mortality

This visualization shows the historical estimates Volk and Atkinson brought together from a large number of different studies. Shown with the blue marks are estimates of the share of newborns that died in the first year of life – the infant mortality rate. And shown with the red marks you see different estimates of the share that never reached adulthood – what we here refer to as the ‘youth mortality rate’.

Across the entire historical sample the authors found that on average, 26.9% of newborns died in their first year of life and 46.2% died before they reached adulthood. Two estimates that are easy to remember: Around a quarter died in the first year of life. Around half died as children.

What is striking about the historical estimates is how similar the mortality rates for children were across this very wide range of 43 historical cultures. Whether in Ancient Rome; Ancient Greece; the pre-Columbian Americas; Medieval Japan or Medieval England; the European Renaissance; or Imperial China: Every fourth newborn died in the first year of life. One out of two died in childhood…. »

More: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-in-the-past 

While the average youth mortality rate was 46.2% across 23 historical societies during the past 2400 years, up to the year 1900, the global youth mortality rate fell to 27% by 1950 and to 4.6% by 2017.

In Canada, youth mortality had fallen to 5.62% by 2050 and 0.62% by 2017. It would have been substantially higher for much of the time during which Canada’s residential schools operated. Consider that the “Average youth mortality rate across 20 different hunter-gatherer societies [had been] 48.8%.

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