What's the best age to have kids?

Monday, June 18, 2007
You've finally found a partner you know is 'the one' and you're keen to start a family 'some time' — but what time is the best time?

If it's too soon you could risk your financial future, too late and you could miss the baby boat forever. In 1985, the average age of a first time Australian mum was 27 years old. Today she's closer to 31 — and many more women are giving birth in their 40s.

So when it comes to having babies, does age really matter and if it does, what's the best age to start? Giaan Rooney talks to some families to find out.

Samantha was 20 and her husband Trevor was 24 when their baby Heath arrived. "A lot of people said to us when we were pregnant that we were too young to have kids and basically we were kids ourselves. But I used to turn around to them and say that age is only a number and I think we're doing a great job, being great parents," says Samantha.

Then there's the Faint family, who got started a lot later. "Being 35 when I did meet Paul, I thought 'I've only got a limited time' if I want to have children," says Julie.

At age 37 Julie had her first baby and their second child arrived at 43. "I hope to bring a lot of what I've experienced to both Jean-Paul and to Remy," Julie says.

Our early and late starters both think they've done the right thing. But what does science have to say about it? Dr John McBain is the head of Reproductive Services at Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital and he's going to oversee a little test.

The test

We've enlisted the help of three volunteers who have all had kids already, but would like to know if they can go again.

  • Melissa is 23
  • Katherine is 34
  • Margaret is 44

They all head off to the doctor for a blood test that will reveal the women's follicle stimulating hormone FSH levels. These show if their ovaries are still releasing eggs.

The results

What does Dr McBain have to say about the fertility levels of each of the women?

Instead of waiting for the doctor's results, Melissa's got news for Dr McBain:
Melissa: I had a pregnancy test.
Dr McBain: And what was the result of that test?
Melissa: It was positive.
Dr McBain: "Fantastic.

Falling pregnant is the ultimate proof of fertility! And at 23, Melissa is five times more fertile than a 43-year-old.

At 34, Katherine's already had one child and is anxious to have another.

"Katherine, if we were going by these results alone, then you could be reassured that your fertility is pretty good just now. [But] it's not going to say how fertile you'll be in two or three years time," says Dr McBain.

Katherine is happy to take the doc's advice, "I won't wait as long as I was going to."

Biologically the most fertile age for women is 18 to 34 years old. "After the age of 34, it declines by something like 10 percent a year, until the woman is 40, after which time it decreases very very rapidly," says Dr McBain.

Well that doesn't bode well for Margaret.

"I've never had a fertility test before so it'll be interesting to see, whether I could be a mummy at 44," says Margaret.<.> But it's Margaret's lucky day: "Your test result suggests that you could probably be fertile," says Dr McBain.

But most women her age would not be so lucky. "Sadly, women in their mid 40s, even though they've got normal cycles, don't get pregnant very often," says the doc.

The stats tell the story:

  • Women in their late 30s have a 33 percent chance of conceiving.
  • Women in their early 40s have a 20 percent chance.
  • Women aged 45 have less than a one percent chance!

The longer you leave it also increases the chance of complications. After 34 you are more likely to miscarry, develop pregnancy problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, and there's a higher risk of down syndrome foetuses.

But what about when you take into account other factors, like emotional maturity and financial security?

"Research evidence would suggest that probably the optimal age, from many points of view is from your early to mid-twenties to your mid-thirties," says Dr Jane Fisher, a senior lecturer in women's health at the University of Melbourne.

"We know that adjustment to parent hood is easier if you're not worried about a lot of other things at the same time and those things are probably more likely to be in place if you're not very young."

Now while the odds of getting pregnant are better for younger women, having a child is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make.

For early starters Samantha and Trevor, they couldn't be happier. "I didn't realise that a baby could bring so much happiness to you and everyone around you," says Samantha.

The same goes for the late starters Julie and Paul — they wouldn't have given up parenting for quids. "I'm a genuine believer in you're only as old as you feel and children do keep you young as well," says Paul.

So if you want to get pregnant, remember the normal health rules apply: keep the weight down, give up smoking, moderate your alcohol intake "and have lots of sex," adds Dr McBain.

Having a baby is a huge life-changing experience so before you leap in, ask yourself if you're ready to become a parent? And be honest because that's probably the most important question of all.

Fast facts

  • Are older mothers more likely to have left or right-handed children? The older the mother the higher the chance she'll have a left hander. We don't know why, but with the number of older mums increasing, so are the numbers of left-handed bubs. In Britain four times as many left-handers are born now, compared to 100 years ago.

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