Okay, so you might not have savings in the bank, or you may need to put your career on hold, but the best time to have a baby is when you want one
Yes, we are having children later – one in five new mums is over 35 (four times the level of the mid-70s), and record numbers in their forties are having babies (hello, Halle Berry). But the reason is more likely to be economic concerns, unstable relationships and the soaring cost of housing than what we do for a living, says the Office for National Statistics.
Younger mothers aren’t free from social discrimination, either. Britain has high teen pregnancy rates and nearly a quarter of babies are born to women under 25. Teen mums are often on the receiving end of disapproval, with an assumption the pregnancy was unplanned and that they may need extra financial support.
We can’t win – it can feel like there’s only a tiny sliver of time between ‘too young’ and ‘too old’ in which it’s deemed acceptable to have a baby. But, while surveys may point to your mid-twenties as the perfect time, there are positives and negatives at every age.
IN YOUR TWENTIES
When you’re young, the advantages are physical. ‘You’re born with all the eggs you’ll ever have,’ says fertility consultant Mr Mark Sedler. ‘You lose a batch each month, and the best quality ones go first, which means your twenties through to your early thirties is the prime time to conceive.’
Having a baby in this decade can reduce the risk of certain health issues – for example, at 25, your chance of having a baby with Down’s syndrome is 1 in 1250, compared with 1 in 100 by 40.
Your risk of pre-eclampsia, placenta praevia and premature birth are all lower, and you’re less likely to develop ongoing health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Having a baby at this time even reduces your chances of breast cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, the younger you are when you start having children, the lower your risk – the relative risk increases by three per cent with every year of delay (you’ll further slash this by breastfeeding).
Then, once baby arrives, you’ll be grateful for your youthful energy. ‘You’re likely to have the stamina to get up in the night without feeling exhausted the next day,’ says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist specialising in parenting skills.
But, adds Linda, being a younger mum is not without its downsides. ‘You may feel conflicted, as you might not have had time to do all the things you wanted to do, whether that’s build up a career or travel,’ she says. You might have less in the bank than older mums, which could lead to financial insecurity and stress.
And, with the high cost of housing, you may not have as stable a home environment as you’d like. ‘But your baby just needs your love – he or she doesn’t care where you’re living or how much money you have,’ says Linda.
IN YOUR THIRTIES
This can seem the perfect time to have a baby. You’re more likely to have established a good career and your financial position may be stronger, possibly with your own home and savings. Emotionally, your increased confidence will equip you well for dealing with a little one. While you may not have the energy levels of a 25-year-old, you should be fit enough to cope with the disrupted sleep.
However, after 35, it can prove harder to get pregnant. Even if you’re expecting now or have had a baby, your age might be a factor if you’re planning on increasing your family. And, as your fertility declines, the likelihood of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia and ectopic pregnancy rises, along with the risk of chromosomal abnormalities in the baby.
There are positives and negatives to having a baby at every age
But, even at 38, 77% of women will conceive within three years. While you can’t change how many of your eggs can be fertilised, overall wellbeing can make a difference. ‘If you’re a non-smoker, that’s positive – smoking damages eggs and can trigger early menopause,’ says Richard Fleming, director for the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine. ‘Evidence also suggests certain nutrients, such as vitamin D, may be connected to fertility.’ So you could try supplementing with a multivitamin.
IN YOUR FORTIES
Your chances of conceiving are much lower and the risk of chromosomal abnormalities is higher, increasing the possibility of miscarriage and health problems in the baby. Mothers over 40 are also more likely to need intervention during birth, although this may be down to doctors’ awareness of your age, rather than necessity. ‘But women in their forties are now generally healthier than ever, and doctors can screen for problems, so you’ll be monitored very closely,’ says Linda.
A revolutionary new blood test (currently costing £400) can tell you the likelihood of your unborn baby having Down’s syndrome and, if you struggle to conceive, developments in IVF may improve its effectiveness. Current figures show 13.6% of women aged 40-42 who have IVF will have a baby. Plus, there are indications that a pioneering time-lapse imaging technique, currently available in around a dozen private clinics, may boost IVF birth rates by as much as 56%.
But it can be easy to forget that 40-something mums are not a new phenomenon. Prior to the era of reliable contraception, women carried on having babies throughout their thirties and forties. In 1947, after the Second World War, more babies were born to women over 40 than in 2011 (yes, you read that right).
‘In my experience, older mums tend to be calmer and have more perspective,’ says Linda. ‘You may feel more relaxed about giving up all your time to a baby, because you’ve had plenty of years doing your own thing.’
Research suggests your baby will benefit from having an older mum, too – scientists at the Institute of Child Health, UCL and Birkbeck College, London, found older mothers make better parents, with children born to women over 40 being more intelligent, healthier and less likely to have accidents. And that’s something to celebrate.