A nurse holds a baby at an infant care center in Yongquan,  southwest China, in 2015.

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The number of babies born rose 7.9% year over year

2016 was the first year of China's new two-child policy

CNN  — 

The number of babies born in China in 2016 jumped 7.9% from the previous year, according to government figures, a jump attributable to China’s shift to a two-child policy.

A total of 17.86 million babies were born in 2016, an increase of 1.31 million over the total in 2015. The new total represents the highest annual number of newborns since 2000, according to government data.

China’s decision to allow all Chinese couples to have two children was a “major factor” in the increase, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC).

“It demonstrates that the universal second-child policy came in time and worked effectively,” said Yang Wenzhuang, a division director of the NHFPC.

The birth increase comes more than a year after China decided to abandon its decades-old policy limiting parents to just one child.

The one-child policy, first introduced in 1979, caused a sharp downturn in the fertility rate from a peak of about six births per woman from 1960 to 1965. That number had cratered to about 1.5 births per woman from 1995 to 2014, according to a study.

But the low birth rate created a number of serious demographic challenges. Today, China faces a rapidly aging population and a shortage of working-age residents, causing stress on health care and social services for the elderly. The impact of the new policy won’t be felt until those new babies are old enough to join the workforce, experts warn.

China had loosened its one-child policy in recent years, and the program was officially expanded to a two-child policy as of the start of 2016.