Older mothers are better mothers, new study finds
The established wisdom that motherhood is best kept to the young is being reconsidered
Studies show that children of older mothers have better language skills and fewer behavioural, social and emotional problems. Photograph: iStock
The bulk of medical research on pregnancy and childbirth has emphasised the importance of an expectant mother’s physical health in terms of the likely future wellbeing of their offspring.
This stands to reason. The risks associated with late fertility and the consequences on women’s lives and those of her children include greater risk of miscarriage, premature birth or having children with deformities.
The long-established, but rather crude, rule of thumb that women should avoid getting pregnant too late in life fails to account for psychosocial factors affecting children once they’re born.
Higher maternal age is associated with increased psychosocial wellbeing during pregnancy as well as the early days after the child is born
New research from Aarhus University’s school of business and social sciences in Denmark suggests that older mothers are “less likely to punish and scold their children while raising them, and that the children have fewer behavioural, social and emotional difficulties”.
According to the study, a higher maternal age is associated with increased psychosocial wellbeing during pregnancy as well as the early days after the child is born.
Older mothers tend to have more stable relationships, are better educated and are likely to have greater access to material resources.
This study ties in with an existing research that older women thrive better during the first part of motherhood
Notwithstanding such external factors, it is also suggested that age can be interpreted as an indicator of “psychological maturity”.
“We know that people become more mentally flexible with age, are more tolerant of other people and thrive better emotionally themselves,” says Prof Dion Sommer from the department of psychology and behavioural sciences at Aarhus University. “That’s why psychological maturity may explain why older mothers do not scold and physically discipline their children as much.”
This study ties in with an existing body of research suggesting that older women thrive better during the first part of motherhood, worry less during pregnancy, are more positive about becoming parents, and generally have a more positive attitude towards their children.
An earlier study tracking children up until their school age indicated that the children of older mothers – regardless of socioeconomic background, education and financial wellbeing – had better language skills and fewer behavioural, social and emotional problems.
This new research, however, is timely, coming as it does when the average age of women at childbirth has been rising steadily for two decades. “In Ireland the average age of mothers for births registered in 2015 was 32.5 years [CSO 2015], an increase of 2.5 years from 1995,” says Dr Siobhan J MacDermott from the school of nursing and human science at Dublin City University.
Similar trends of late fertility are being seen across most of the developed world.
“Much of the evidence suggests that a woman’s fertility begins to decline significantly at 32 years and further declines at 37 years,” says MacDermott. “However, a recent international study suggests that fertility knowledge is poor among this age group.
“So while it may be recommended by health professionals to have children earlier in life, knowledge, sex education and attitudes may not be reflecting the demographic changes in society that lead to late fertility.”
The study from Denmark also suggests older mothers aren’t as likely to adopt an overly punitive approach to bad behaviour and, because of this, their children may have fewer behavioural, social and emotional difficulties.
Still, Dr MacDermott isn’t necessarily convinced of the linear “cause and effect” link between the two suggested by the study.
“In recent years what has been less clear is whether late fertility influences parenting styles and psychosocial outcomes for children,” she says. “Delayed parenting is a widespread phenomenon in the developed world and the outcomes need to be explored . . . [but] there is little doubt that the style of parenting during the first years of life are a fundamental influence in children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
“The question the article highlights is, does maternal age influence parental role performance and outcomes for children?”
Parenting in the 21st century is no longer the full-time role it was once perceived to be, particularly for mothers. Primary caregivers frequently succeed in balancing parenthood with a demanding career. The “new normal”, however, means other childcare options – outside of the nuclear family setting – has become essential for many parents.
There is evidence that children in formal childcare have higher early school achievement and less behavioural problems
While this less static approach to childcare may serve to satisfy the career needs of modern parents, it has been suggested that the lack of structure may not be all that satisfying for children.
“Previous studies have shown that older mothers tend to use a more formal childcare arrangement than younger mothers,” says MacDermott. “This may be due to the fact older mothers may have older grandparents who are not in a position to offer informal childcare for their grandchildren. There is some evidence that children in formal childcare have higher early school achievement and less behavioural problems.”
Exposure to other children in a professional childcare setting is recognised as having positive benefits for the socialisation of young children. Ultimately, however, parental style is paramount.
“Parental style has been shown to have a stronger influence on child outcomes than attendance at childcare,” says MacDermott. “And studies examining adolescent mothers versus older mothers show that older mothers had more empathy towards their children’s needs. However, the differences were significantly small and there are studies that show little difference between these two groups.
Studies suggest that increased maternal age is related to greater satisfaction with parenting
“Certainly age and maturity tend to bring emotional stability, psychological strength and financial security, which may attribute to the result of this study where children had fewer behavioural, social and emotional difficulties.
“Interestingly, studies suggest that increased maternal age is related to greater satisfaction with parenting, more time commitment to the parenting role – and this may lead to more optimal behaviour and wellbeing in children.”