Have you ever had other people – friends, family, even strangers – share their very strong opinions about when you should have a baby? As if that wasn’t awkward enough, it often feels like they won’t be happy with any answer you give them. If a woman suggests she might be ready to start a family in her twenties, she often gets told she’s too young.
But, as soon as she turns 30, she’d better get a move on, apparently. Add everyone else’s expectations to your own questions and you have a recipe for confusion. But when is the best time to start a family? How old is too old to have a baby?
Why is the average maternal age going up?
For several years now, the average age of first-time mothers has been going up. From 2000 to 2013, the number of babies born to women over the age of 50 also nearly doubled.
There are a lot of reasons behind the rising average maternal age—some great signs of progress for women (we’re waiting longer because we can) and some pretty frustrating (we’re waiting longer because we have to).
On one hand:
- Birth control is more reliable and more women are properly informed on how to use contraception, so they have more control over when they get pregnant than previous generations.
- There are fewer teen pregnancies.
- Fertility treatments are becoming more effective and accessible.
- More women are attending university and/or climbing the career ladder and shattering the glass ceiling before they choose to have children.
On the other:
- The cost of living has increased and one person’s salary is less likely to cover all the costs a family has. This makes it harder to afford the costs associated with pregnancy, birth, and raising children.
- Women are expected to (or need to, or want to) return to their jobs after having children, but childcare is expensive and more people live further from their families who might previously have been able to help.
- For many, housing and jobs are less stable than they were in previous decades. This means that people don’t have the security they feel they need to start a family.
But even if we’re aware of all these pressures, we still have a question to answer: How old is too old to have kids?
The perfect time to have a baby
It’s often said that there’s no perfect time to have a baby and that there’s always going to be a reason to wait another year. But, according to doctors, your body is most able to cope with pregnancy, birth, and raising a newborn when you’re in your mid-twenties.
For many people, this seems very young. If you’re 25 right now and you don’t feel emotionally ready, financially prepared, or if you’re not with the person you want to raise children with, that’s completely fine. As we’ve seen in the statistics above, you’re in a growing majority of women.
If we look some more at the medical evidence, most insurance companies recognize that the chance of chromosomal abnormalities in the egg starts to increase quickly if you’re having a baby at 35 or older. This reduction in quality of gametes applies to males and females. After this point, mamas-to-be are often eligible for free genetic testing. Or, if you’re having problems TTC after 35, you’ll be fast-tracked for fertility treatment.
So it’s reasonable to say that the “best” time to start a family is sometime between your mid-twenties and your mid-thirties.
Facts about age and fertility
Advanced maternal age (which, by the way, we prefer to call 35+ pregnancy) is a category that you enter after your mid-thirties, at least according to healthcare providers.
In the media, we see more and more celebrities having babies past this seemingly important cut-off point. Rachel Weisz recently had a baby 48. And is 50 too old for a woman to have a baby? Not according to Janet Jackson and Naomi Campbell, who both welcomed their first children after the big 5-0.
But when we’re talking about fertility, age does make a difference.
We’re born with all the eggs we’ll ever have. As we get older, the number of eggs in our ovaries decreases and so does the quality of the remaining eggs.
Of course, your healthy eggs will make beautiful babies, but there are fewer healthy eggs to be released when you ovulate.
All the statistics show that your chances of conceiving naturally and having a smooth pregnancy decrease as you get older. We don’t say this to worry you, but just to help you understand why you may have more appointments, extra tests, or more of a spotlight on you and your baby during a 35+ pregnancy.
The average 30-year-old has a 20% chance of getting pregnant each month (if that’s their goal). For a 40-year-old, this drops to just 5%. Is 40 too old to have a baby? No, but you might have a longer road to get there.
Women under 35 have around a 15-20% chance of their pregnancy ending in miscarriage. After the age of 40, this increases to as much as 50%.
Chromosomal conditions, including Downs Syndrome, are also more common in babies born to women aged 35+. The chance increases from 1:1300 for mothers in their mid-twenties, to 1:365 at the age of 35, and then 1:30 births after 45.
You also have your own body to think about. Women who have their babies later are at a higher risk of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes and are more likely to have a c-section delivery.
Your chance of having multiple births (twins or triplets) also increases as you get older. This might sound like a good thing, but a multiple pregnancy is hard on your body, you’re more likely to have your babies before their due date, and more likely to need a C-section.
In short, while you’re only definitely “too old to have kids” when the menopause stops your periods for good (on average, at age 51), there are more risks to consider if you want to have a baby in your late 30s or 40s.
What about fertility treatments?
If you’re reading this and worrying that you’ve waited too long, it’s worth taking time to research fertility treatments. The success of fertility treatments is mostly to do with your eggs. Freezing your eggs when you’re younger, and especially if you freeze embryos, gives you a better chance of having a child later in life.
Although these treatments can be expensive and emotionally draining, and although even a procedure like IVF has less chance of success as you get older, research is constantly being done in this area to improve the outcomes.