Adoption in Australia is at an all-time low as changed social attitudes ease the pressure on women to give up babies, and sex-education and birth control take effect.

Last year 440 children were adopted in Australia, a 23 per cent drop on the year before and the lowest since records began in 1969, a report out today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows.

There's an idea that birth mothers are young unwed women, but that's definitely not the case. 

Adoptions Australia 2007-08 traces four decades of adoption in Australia, since the first children from overseas were brought here in "Operation Babylift" during the Vietnam War.

The author, Nicole Hunter, said a combination of factors had since then led to a marked decline. Fewer unwanted children are born in Australia and fewer women are compelled to give biological children away.

"Most of [the drop] is due to the number of Australian children who require adoption," she said. "Broad social trends like more effective birth control, the emergence of family planning centres and sex education classes have led to a reduction in unplanned and unwanted pregnancies."

At the same time, new technologies such as IVF have allowed women who were previously thought unable to conceive to bear children. Laws in some states have also replaced the need for step-parents and relatives to adopt by transferring custody without it.

Birth mothers in local adoptions, where adoptive parents have no relationship with the child, cover a large age span. Contrary to the perception of unwed teenagers giving up children, the report found only 19 per cent were under 20. A quarter were over 26 and of that group, 7 per cent over 40.

"There's an idea that birth mothers are young unwed women, but that's definitely not the case," Ms Hunter said.

A third of adopted children were born to women in a registered marriage. Of the children adopted in 2007-08, only four were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. This could partly be attributed to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle which requires children to be placed with relatives before other options are considered.

Most adoptions in Australia last year were of children from overseas. The most popular source countries were China, South Korea and the Philippines.

However, there were considerably fewer children from China and South Korea compared to the year before. This was due to countries trying harder to place children within their birth countries, Ms Hunter said.

Children under five were most likely to be adopted.

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