Pope Francis said on Friday the cost of raising children was too high and that parents needed more help if countries such as Italy were to overcome the low birth rates that were undermining their future.

Speaking at a conference on Italy's dearth of babies, Francis said polls showed most young people wanted to have children, but were worried about the expense. "Their dreams of a new life, the seeds of the country's rebirth, come up against a demographic winter that is cold and dark," the pope said.

"For the future to be good, we need to look after families, especially young families, who are beset by worries that risk paralyzing their life plans. I am thinking of the fears caused by the increasingly unaffordable costs of raising children."

Speaking at the same event, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Italy had just 404,000 births last year, the lowest since records began and down 30% on 12 years ago, while deaths totaled 746,000, lifted in part by the COVID pandemic.

"An Italy without children is an Italy that does not believe in itself and does not plan for the future. It is an Italy destined to slowly grow old and vanish," said Draghi. The question of low birth rates is not confined to Italy.

Data this month showed Chinese births fell 18% last year to their lowest since 1961 and the U.S. birth rate declined 4% to its weakest since 1979.

The sharp fall in 2020 in the number of babies born in many countries has been blamed in part on the stress and uncertainty generated by COVID.

But the longer-term fertility trends across much of the developed world have been in retreat for some years. The pope said a shift in values bore some of the blame with modern society putting an emphasis on earning money and building a career, while children were viewed as a "distraction".

"This mentality is gangrene for society and makes the future unsustainable," he said.

He also took aim at young people, saying some role models set a bad example by being obsessed over their appearance and seemingly reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to raise a family.

"You don't stay young by taking selfies .. but from being able to look into the eyes of your children one day," he said.