Early this year, Janet Jackson gave birth to her first child. What made the headlines, though, was the pop star’s age. At 50 years old, Jackson’s pregnancy was a rarity, but part of a growing trend of women waiting until later in life to start their families.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of women in the United States giving birth for the first time has risen during the past four decades, reaching a record high of 26 in 2013. The increase reflects a shift in women waiting until their 30s and 40s to start having children. Today, one in 12 first-time moms is 35 or older. In 1970, that figure was just one in 100.
However, older mothers have more difficulty conceiving, and both they and their infants tend to face increased health risks.
Complications in pregnancy, including gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, are more common among women over 35. After age 40, the risk of having a child with a genetic disorder rises.
The Good News
If you’re worried about delaying pregnancy beyond age 35, don’t ignore the many benefits of starting a family later in life. One of the biggest advantages is that older mothers are more likely to have higher educations and higher incomes, having been in the workforce longer.
One researcher found that U.S. Census data from 2000 showed women who waited to have kids had significantly higher salaries than women of the same age, with the same level of education, who had kids earlier.
Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women's gender and sexuality studies program at the University of Houston and author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing The New Later Motherhood, found that for each year a college graduate delays pregnancy, she will likely increase her long-term salary. Even delaying child rearing just five years, from age 30 to 35, was linked to a boost in salary of $16,000 per year, on average.
Also, the marriages of older parents tend to be more stable. These parents usually have more experience with children, whether interacting with kids as aunts and uncles, or through their friends’ children.
Older parents are generally more mature and readily able to take on the commitment, responsibilities, and sacrifices of having kids. They also tend to have a much wider array of experiences than younger parents, since they’ve lived longer. Their education, travel, and cultural, emotional, and social experiences – their wisdom, let’s say – enhances their parenting and can make for a more self-assured, relaxed, and patient parent.
Age and Fertility
Every female is born with all the eggs she’ll ever have, about 1 million. Each year, thousands die naturally, so by the time a young woman has her first period, she’s got about 300,000 left. While age 35 has been described as the “fertility cliff” for years, the latest research suggests little difference in fertility up until age 40, with the steepest decline happening after that.
Older eggs are more likely to have genetic abnormalities, which are known to increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, and health problems in children. However, up until age 40, the overall risk for these complications remains low.
Here's a breakdown of your odds of conception at every age. Keep in mind that while men generally remain fertile much longer than women, their fertility also declines with age, and can be affected by lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking.
The average woman’s fertility peaks at 24, so your odds of getting pregnant each month are the highest they’ll ever be. Women under 25 have a 96 percent chance of conceiving within a year, if they're trying each month.
Until age 35, a woman’s odds of conceiving are still high, about 86 percent for couples that try for a year. Your chance of miscarriage rises to 10 percent, just a little higher than in your 20s. But fertility experts suggest seeing a specialist to undergo testing if you’re having trouble conceiving after six months.
If you plan on delaying childbirth beyond your 30s, this is the time to freeze viable eggs.
It’s not uncommon for women in their early 40s have healthy babies naturally. However, at this stage, egg quality begins to go downhill fast.
A study in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility in 2005 showed that 40-year-old women treated for infertility had a 25 percent chance of getting pregnant using their own eggs. By age 43, the figure dropped to 10 percent, and by 44, women had a 1.6 percent chance of getting pregnant. Meanwhile, the rate of miscarriage increased significantly.
Other challenges also can make it harder to conceive and stay pregnant. Some women report an increase in uterine lining issues, making it more difficult for the egg to implant. Older male partners may also present fertility issues.
Women's cycles may also shorten in their 40s as they approach menopause, meaning ovulation occurs earlier in the cycle. An ovulation predictor kit may help get the timing of intercourse right. Doctors suggest contacting a specialist if conception hasn’t happened within three months.
Women who chose to freeze their eggs can thaw and fertilize them at a later date, implanting the embryos using in vitro fertilization (IVF). It's also possible to freeze embryos and later implant them, also using IVF. Another alternative is to conceive using donor eggs (and sperm).
The drawback to IVF is the expense: about $10,000 for the egg freezing, more than $12,000 per cycle, and up to $5,000 for additional medication. Using donor eggs and sperm can add another $35,000 to the cost.
Ultimately, when and how to start your family is a huge decision with lots of factors, but thanks to current medical technology and healthcare, that decision is one you have increasingly more control over.