Number of 'older' women having babies continues to grow

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 12:16 a.m. MDT

Amy Wasserman and her husband, Scott Plotkin, adopted their first child, Lily, when Wasserman was age 44.

Family photo

SALT LAKE CITY — It seems to Mandy Krell that she has been waiting for a long time. The Lansing, Mich., native didn't meet a man she wanted to marry and with whom she'd like to have a child until she was 39, a bit later than she expected. Now she is waiting for that longed-for child who has not, so far, arrived.

What has come into her life is a bad economy that left her unemployed and fearful about being able to afford a child on one income. And she worries that her opportunity to have a child may have passed.

If Krell does manage to have a baby in her 40s, she will be less alone than she would have been in decades past. The number of births, particularly first-time births, to older mothers is growing. First-time maternity for "older women" — and this may be the only area besides sports where women in their late 30s and 40s are considered "old" — is becoming less uncommon. But women who have or are trying to have children then, naturally or with assistance, agree it is a journey filled with both challenges and joys.

"Forty is the new 20 when it comes to having babies," wrote Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of 15 books on family issues and parenting, in a Psychology Today blog. The Council on Contemporary Families said 40 percent of babies are born to women over 30 and that 1 in 7 babies is born to women over 35, while the Pew Research Center in 2010 reported that more babies were born to women older than 35 than to teenagers. It is a change, Pew said, driven by medical advances, later marriages and new views on motherhood.

In good company

June's National Vital Statistics Report said the pregnancy rate for women 40-44 has increased steadily since 1991 to 18.8 pregnancies per 1,000 women in that age group. It didn't count women who have babies beyond 44, but that number is growing, too.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported that nearly 40 percent of women who had a first baby at age 35 or later between 2006 and 2010 went on to have at least one more, compared to 26 percent in 1995.

Research gives mixed reviews, but there is much good news among the bad for older moms: Children born to moms over 40 tend to have higher IQs and more impressive early vocabulary, according to a study from the Institute of Child Health, University College London and Birkbeck College in London. Those children are less apt to need hospitalization or have accidents. The researchers theorized older moms are either more cautious or are better able to identify and help children avoid risks.

Different research showed that women who delay motherhood live longer than those who give birth at younger ages, perhaps even to 100. And studies consistently show that older moms are typically better educated than young moms.

But researchers have found a downside, too. Older moms are more prone to health problems linked to childbirth. While most women in their late 30s and early 40s will have healthy pregnancies and babies, the March of Dimes said, the moms' older age confers greater risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, miscarriage, delivery complications, prematurity and stillbirth than younger women face. Autism numbers rise. And the chance the baby will have a genetic disorder increases with maternal age. So does the possibility that fertility has declined or gone away.

Still, numbers are sometimes misinterpreted. A report that a woman at 30 only has 12 percent of her eggs didn't note it was comparing a woman that age to a 20-week-old female fetus. By that measure, a girl of 15 only has half the egg cells and a healthy woman of 25 only 22 percent. While fertility declines, and it may take longer for a couple to conceive after 35, studies say about 90 percent of women at 35 can conceive without aid, as can 75 percent of those through age 39 and about half of those who are 41, said Elizabeth Gregory, director of women's studies at the University of Houston, in a fact sheet prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families. "Rates plummet thereafter, and few women have children after age 44 with their own eggs," she said.

Having babies

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