When is the right time for a woman to have a baby? Is there a right time? According to biology there is. Society may also have an opinion as we can’t get away from the pervasive question of when our wombs would be inhabited. Lifestyle, however, may have the biggest impact on this decision. And yet biology often comes back to give a definitive answer on the question.
Three decades ago, the ideal age to start a family was 25 for women. Most 25-year-olds these days would be adamant that starting a family was not on the agenda yet. I was 30 and 33 when having our two daughters and, in truth, I could have waited a few more years. Today, two-thirds of babies born in Ireland are born to mothers aged in their 30s, but we can't hide from the fact that as our age increases, risk factors rise in pregnancy for both mother and baby. This is why women over the age of 35 have been referred to as "geriatric mothers" or mothers of "advanced maternal age" which sounds a lot kinder but effectively means the same thing.
The older we are, the more complicated it can get.
What struck her the most was how her consultant had little consideration for her
"Physiologically, the right age for a woman to become pregnant is in her 20s," says fertility expert, Helena Tubridy, "as eggs are fresh and a woman's body systems are strong and healthy. There are lower risks of infertility, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and stillbirth."
Lifestyle, however, seems to play a greater part in our decision to start a family as we know life gets complicated when babies take over. “Socially, a woman in her 20s may not have completed her education, career or earning potential or have a stable relationship,” understands Tubridy, who has over 30 years’ experience helping couples through conception, pregnancy and birth. “A woman over 35 has sown her wild oats, is ready to settle into parenthood, and has gathered her tribe around her. She is more likely to be financially secure, in a relationship, or able to go it alone with a child.”
Former sports therapist, Kristen de Bouter, who is now a writer, speaker and coach, was 34 when she had her first son by caesarean section. Two years later she had her second and at the age of 42 her final son arrived. When she hit her late 30s, she found her age played a part in how she was treated during pregnancy. She was told at 42, with a medical record of a caesarean, she was high-risk. What struck her the most was how her consultant, who was against her giving birth naturally, had little consideration for her.
She says, “The consultant lacked empathy and care informing me of all the risks I was taking by wanting my baby delivered naturally. I maintained I knew my body well and I felt strongly that a natural birth was the best way for me. It all went very well. The midwives were marvellous and very supportive, reassuring me I wasn’t “an older mum” or an exception, if they compared me with all the other patients they saw. It was the consultants who were altogether old fashioned.”
Tubridy tells us that ability and individual circumstances don’t discount from the fact that the average age of first-time mothers is rising leading to an escalating risk of pregnancy complications. “At an individual level,” she says, “many of my clients conceive and deliver a healthy baby. My advice is to get the fertility ducks lined up at the start of trying to conceive. Both partners need to be healthy, strong and fit for parenthood, if possible. So, good food, normal weight, plenty of sex, deep sleep, rest, exercise, less sitting and stress, more connection. Both partners need GP, STI and dental check-ups.
“Fertility declines naturally the older we are. Between the ages of 35 to 39, the chances of conceiving drops to 29 per cent with a massive drop to 5 per cent after 40, which is where the demeaning term ‘geriatric mother’ derives from.”
Lifestyle plays a significant part in the age we begin to consider parenthood. Living our lives, pursing our dreams and finding the comfort and finances to settle into family life mean babies are added later on as adventures come first and costs slow things down.
Leah Ryz and her wife waited until their 30s to undergo IVF treatment. Financial concerns were the primary reasons as she says, "Given the fact that our family setup is quite different to most families, it was important for us to be as financially stable as possible and to be living in an area where we felt comfortable. We both had good careers and worked very hard to save money for our wedding and then our IVF treatment. We didn't want to enter new married or family life with a heavy debt and I'm really pleased that we waited, given the financial stresses of having children."
Kristen did not deliberately wait to have children but the thoughts of having children didn’t creep in until later. “I was enjoying working in my business,” she says, “and it simply hadn’t come up in a strong way. Then I realised I couldn’t imagine myself without children, which was the first time I started to consider it. I was already in my early 30s by then.”
There is an expectation that older mums find pregnancy and birth difficult. For Leah, unfortunately, she didn’t have a straightforward pregnancy. This had little to do with her age but rather the fact she was carrying twins. She says, “I developed biliary colic and grew a 2cm gallstone which made me very ill at five months pregnant. I know several older mothers who had straightforward pregnancies and straightforward births.”
Kirsten, now 48, is perhaps 20 years older than the mums of her younger sons’ friends but she finds it humorous when her son’s friends are shocked that she is “old”. While pregnancy was tough for her, she found she was more emotionally and psychologically centred in her late 30s and 40s which gave her more confidence as a woman and mother. Her advice to mums in their 30s and older is first and foremost not to label yourself as an older mum. She says to keep physically fit, stay mentally young and remember to press pause on life when things get hectic.
“No one should feel pressured into having kids before they’re ready,” says Tubridy, “but the biology is unforgiving and inescapable. Women do get pregnant for the first time at 35 and beyond. However, their long-term health is better if they have completed their family by that age.”
Leah has no regrets waiting to have children until they were financially stable. She says, “I did want to try earlier. but then I wouldn’t have my two beautiful children that I have now, and that thought is more than unbearable. So, no regrets.”