What's age got to do with it?

12:0AM, Nov 1st 2011

How old you are has a big impact on your experience of pregnancy and motherhood. Here are the pros and cons of becoming a mum at different ages.

What's age got to do with it?
Can you guess who is mum to the baby? Image: Thinkstock

How old you are has a big impact on your experience of pregnancy and motherhood. Here are the pros and cons of becoming a mum at different ages.

Sure, your tummy might snap back into shape after having a baby in your 20s, but paying the bills could be tough. In your 40s, you may find a newborn utterly exhausting, but your life experience makes it a breeze to deal with the emotional stresses of parenthood.

There are good and bad points to having a baby at different ages. If doctors had their way, most women would start having kids in their 20s, most fertile and the risks of things going wrong are lowest but women in their 30s and older usually have the benefits of financial and relationship security.

One thing's for sure: Australian mums are getting older. The rate of teen pregnancies is dropping, while the number of mums over 40s is on the rise. Here's a look at what to expect in pregnancy and motherhood at every age.

View related gallery: The fertility workout

Teens too young?
Coping with pregnancy and motherhood is hard work at any age, but for teen mums it can be toughest of all. In Australia, the rate of teen pregnancies is falling. In 2004 it was 16.3 babies per 1000 women, compared with 55.5 babies in 1971.

While teenagers' bodies are generally in good shape to deal with the rigours of carrying a baby, often the rest of their lives aren't. More than 60 percent of teenagers don't have a partner when they give birth.

Most haven't completed school, nor do they have stable employment. Teen mums have a surprisingly high rate of complications during the pregnancy and birth, like premature births and low birthweights, and that's usually associated with high rates of smoking and inadequate diet. They're also more likely to suffer postnatal depression than mums of other ages.

The majority of teen pregnancies aren't planned, but those teens trying to fall pregnant may have difficulties, as menstrual cycles are often irregular in the teenage years.

The secret to a successful teen pregnancy and happy mum is good antenatal care and family support after the birth.

The "golden age": 20s
Health experts reckon this is the ideal time for women to start having children. Medically, the whole run from conception to birth is most likely to be trouble-free. Women in their 20s usually fall pregnant within two months of trying. The risks of problems like miscarriage, Down syndrome or other chromosomal defects are all lower.

In your 20s, your body is in peak condition, so you're best placed to cope with the hard work of pregnancy and the extra load on muscles, back and bones. Your body hasn't gone through the wear and tear that will occur over the next 10 and 20 years.

While women in their 20s may not have huge savings or work experience behind them, there are other benefits. Chances are their parents are young, so it's more likely there'll be plenty of grandparents around to help out in the early days, too.

Getting tricky: 30s
After 30, things start to get difficult in terms of getting pregnant and having a smooth run through a pregnancy and birth.

On the whole, there's not a big difference medically between women in their late 20s and those in their early 30s, though fertility does start to steadily decline after you turn 30.

It's once you hit 35 the troubles can really start. From 35, women ovulate less frequently and the quality of their eggs isn't as good as those of younger women. About one third of all women over 35 have difficulties conceiving, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

The risks of all pregnancy-related problems, from diabetes to pre-eclampsia and low birth-weight, are increased. And there's a much higher chance of miscarriage: one Danish study reported that 20% of pregnant women aged 35 to 39 miscarried.

On the upside, you're emotionally and psychologically more ready than ever in your 30s to start a family. You're more likely to be in a stable relationship, you've had time to establish your career, travel and get your finances sorted. With so many women starting families in their 30s, you're more likely to have a good support network of friends going through the same things you are.

View related gallery: Celebrities that gave birth after 40

Help (sometimes) needed: 40+
Once you were considered a really old mum if you started a family at 40 or older these days, it's Older and wiser almost common. More women than ever are delaying having children for a mix of reasons, including careers, the cost of real estate and finding the right partner. The number of births to women aged 35 to 49 has tripled since the 1970s.

While being a 40-something new mum is popular, it's still the riskiest age to be pregnant and give birth, not to mention fall pregnant in the first place. More than 50 percent of women 40 and older have difficulties conceiving and the risks of chromosomal abnormalities and miscarriage are increased. A pregnant woman in her 40s is three times more likely to develop diabetes during her pregnancy than a woman in her 20s.

Problems during the birth, like fetal distress, are also more common, which may help explain why first-time mums in their 40s have the highest caesarean rate, at 43 percent.

But aside from the medical risks, many of which can be safely managed with good antenatal care and screening, there are some real bonuses for older mums. By 40, you've probably achieved your career goals and are either happy to take a break and be a mum, or are in a good position to negotiate flexible working arrangements. You're most likely financially established and have the benefits of life experience to help deal with the turmoil of new parenthood.

Related article: One in three mums (all ages) believe their husbands no longer find them attractive

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