THIS SEASON of the year is not a bad time for thinking about the conditions into which children are being born around the world. First of all what about the chances for life itself? A child born in Nigeria today is likely to live, on the average, about 41 years. That's some 30 years less than if he were born in Europe or in North America. But it's eight years longer than if he had been born in Nigeria in 1960. A life expectancy of 41 years is about the same as in Massachusetts at the time of the Civil War-although life spans are now rising faster in West Africa than they were a century ago in New England.

The figures come from the World Bank, an institution with interests that go well beyond money. The Bank is becoming, among other things, a major source of social reporting worldwide, and it has just published a statistical atlas on children. The tables are instructive. As you would expect, things generally get better as your eyes moves from the very poor countries to the richer ones. But it's no simple relationship. A child born in Egypt today has a life expectancy of 52 years-a little longer than that of a child born in Iran, although by conventional accounting Iran is six times as rich per capita as Egypt.

Out of every 1,000 infants born in India, 130 will die before they reach their first birthday; in Bangladesh, 140 will die; and in Afghanistan, about 270. Shocking numbers, when you compare them with the Swedish infant-mortality rate of 8 per 1,000, or even the American rate of 14 per 1,000. But the rates in developing world are dropping steadily. It's worth remembering, incidentally, that early in this century, within the memory of many Americans still living, the infant-morality rate was as high in the United States as it is today in South Asia.

There's more to life, of course, than physical survival. In 1960, one out of every three African children under the age of 14 was working. Now it's one out of every four. Conversely, the proportions in school are rising-although the pattern varies sharply from one country to another. In the Sudan, fewer than half the children of primary school age are in school. But in Kenya, a poorer country, virtually all of them are in school. It's a matter of particular interest that, in most of the developing countries, the numbers of girls who go to school, at both primary and secondary levels, are rapidly approaching the numbers of boys. Even in the societies commonly described as traditional, things are changing with great speed.

Birth rates remain, unfortunately, very high. Most governments understand the importance, for the welfare of their people, of slowing down the pace of population growth. But in the spirit of the season we might observe that, despite the high birth rates, in most of the poor countries things are clearly getting better for children. They will not only live longer than their parents but, in most places, live better as well. Opportunity is hard to define with numbers, but surely the beginning of opportunity is the chance to go to school rather than being put to work as a small child.

That, incidentally, points to the responsibility of the rich countries-above all, the United States-to keep providing development aid. If aid were ineffectual in raising living standards, if it resulted in nothing but swelling populations living in the same poverty and ignorance as always, there would be justification for abandoning the whole idea. But aid demonstrably is having an effect for the better on the circumstances in which many millions of people live. The speed with which those numbers move-the life expectancies, the school enrollments and all the rest-will in some measure depend upon the amounts of aid that the rich countries provide. That's another thought for this season-and also for next summer, when Congress votes on the next round of foreign-aid bills.