By Sister Lilian
Photograph: Val Adamson
Should you opt to start a family in your 20s and take full advantage of that vibrant, prime-of-life decade? Or are the more settled circumstances of the 30s, coupled with a still-young heart and a not-over-the-hill body the ideal years to start a family? Is it possible that the increasing number of men and women embarking upon parenting in their 40s know secrets that give them the edge, despite the obvious challenges?
I very much doubt that there is such a thing as the best age to conceive, carry, give birth to and rear babies. There are advantages and disadvantages to all possible ages and circumstances, and making a decision about the correct age is a personal one.
Right now, the two most important phenomena in this regard are unplanned pregnancies on the one hand and over-planned pregnancies on the other. Too many teenagers find themselves facing prospective parenthood when neither their bodies nor their minds are ready for this sobering reality. There is quite obviously no planning of any kind – no ‘family planning’, no planning ahead of time about what they would do should they find themselves in the family way, not to mention practical plans focused on the realities of pregnancy and parenting.
On the other hand, there are so many couples and individuals intent on parenthood who pursue this goal with in-depth research and precision planning. This is often associated with huge disappointment when pregnancy does not transpire. Many modern-day internal and external environmental issues may be the cause for both male and female fertility problems, and age is certainly not the sole factor related to the ease with which a baby is conceived. The inherent characteristic of needing to be in absolute control in life, no matter what facet, is however a major factor.
Of course, sometimes pregnancy catches people unawares and no matter the age of the expectant mother or father, upturns their life plan. This is nothing new, nor is it unusual for those affected to find ways of dealing with whatever comes their way. And many a couple (and sometimes a man or woman not in a relationship), follow a burning desire to have a baby and are successful – be it easily by natural means, or with more effort using methods like sperm donation, artificial insemination, surrogacy or adoption. Those who fall pregnant when not wanting this at all and those who have difficulty conceiving would envy many people the relative luxury of being in a position to talk about the best age to have a baby. On the downside, there are a number of factors to consider. Many relationships break under the strain of raising children and this risk is even greater when partners are very young and their own personalities, preferences and dislikes are still maturing. It is also difficult to build a career (especially for women) with small babies in the home. Often little ones need to be raised almost exclusively by caregivers or other family members and this begs the question of why a person would want a child under these circumstances.
Babies in your 20s
The age of caution, reason and wisdom unfortunately comes after peak physical and reproductive readiness for babies in most people! The 20s span a decade of major life change for most. And while it may seem crazy to have a baby at 20 or 21 years old, by the age of 27 or 28, many women will be able to tap into most of the benefits without many of the disadvantages of having babies at this time of life.
The ‘playfulness’ that younger parents are still in touch with can be a valuable parenting skill, making the task at hand a lot lighter – a major advantage in the 20s. You are young and positive and there are some really good reasons for having babies at a younger age:
- Your body is a lot stronger
- Health is usually better
- Fertility is at a peak
- The quality of a woman’s eggs is mostly better
- Recovery from birth is mostly quicker
- When your babies are all grown up, you are mostly still in good health and have the energy to enjoy life.
Finances can also prove to be a hampering factor when starting a family in your 20s. It’s not so much the direct costs of raising a child that are necessarily high, but rather the cost of living itself that is the base of the problem if you have not yet built up and consolidated your resources. This is particularly true if you do not have much support from your extended family. Child minding and education do not come cheap and even the cost of sound baby- and child nutrition may be quite daunting.
Having said that, many of the material things we desire for our babies and small children are unnecessary for happiness and health. You might have less material resources but children will profit from learning frugality and the true value of things. When money is short, families are more inclined to make their own happiness than rely on material things and expensive treats. Money problems can, however, lead to an array of insecurities and tensions and this certainly doesn’t make parenting any easier.
Babies in your 30s
The debate about the best age to have a baby centres mostly on the relative safety and risk in pregnancy at an older age. Not so long ago, a woman having her first baby after 30 years was called an ‘elderly primip’ (having your first baby at an older age). This has advanced to 35 years, seeing as so many women now fall into this category and seem to have defied the odds, or maybe have shown the medical world that it is not so abnormal after all.
There is a worldwide increase in menstrual cycle disturbances and this may contribute in some small way to first pregnancies occurring in this decade rather than the 20s, as one of the involuntary factors delaying parenting nowadays. Fertility of both women and men seems to be declining generally, often causing pregnancy to be delayed to the 30s or later.
There are many more conscious reasons and factors influencing the choice for both men and women to have babies after 30 years. Contraceptive advances in the second half of the last century have enabled this to be a conscious decision and career options for women have opened enormously and many wish to first take advantage of this. Previously there was not as much choice as simple acceptance of the ‘fate’ of gender. Gone are the days when being a single woman for longer was seen as an ‘on-the-shelf’ curse – today, many women consciously delay starting a family for personal reasons.
Furthermore, many men and women want greater financial and emotional security before embarking on the responsibility of parenthood and the 30s will for most see easier circumstances, even if pennies still need to be counted carefully.
Having a baby in your 30s, and in particular after 35 years, is not massively more risky than in the 20s. The risk of having a baby with genetic problems does not suddenly emerge from one day to the next, but each year might make one or other factor more significant. There might also be some risk from an older father’s side, although this is very difficult to research accurately. As this decade nears an end though, it is wise to have routine testing and take all associated factors into account when planning a family.
There are certain benefits to having babies in your 30s and these might even be favourable to both mothers and babies. In fact, research bears out that when first pregnancies occur in the 30s, there are often higher standards of education and improved socio-economic status, both of which are linked to healthier pregnancies and babies. Good maternal health and lifestyle is also far more important than chronological age when it comes to the risks of pregnancy. Many women who choose motherhood later are health conscious and have followed wise eating and exercise patterns for many years too.
Emotionally, a person is more mature and able to deal with the ups and downs of parenting at a slightly older age. Pregnancy and parenting will, of course, always affect emotions – partially due to the hormonal changes and also simply due to the massive changes this phase of life heralds. In your 30s you are, however, much more settled, you understand your own personality far better and the ability to react less impetuously has often been mastered.
Earlier financial concern is often substantially less during this decade, removing one huge challenge from the parenting equation. Nonetheless, there are likely to be more money issues than in the 40s and as career building is still high on the agenda, material wealth is likely to be a potential stressor. Babies and children are quick to notice undue stress in the home and this frequently makes them even unhappier, leading to a vicious cycle of ever-increasing tension. Remember though that while money is extremely important, it is the simple things in life that make families truly happy.
Babies in your 40s
For as long as women have had babies, some of these have been born later in life. Historically these have mostly been ‘laatlammetjies’ or pregnancy due to contraception not being a viable option. Nowadays, it is frequently a conscious option to start a family close to or in the 40s. Some women (and their partners) wish to live their younger lives unencumbered by the demands of parenthood. Divorce and re-marriage are also common, with the desire for children from the new union. Parents may well then be in their 40s. Women who choose not to marry but nonetheless discover a desire for a child, also tend to do so in their 30s or 40s, rather than at a younger age.
A common concern in this decade is genetic defects. A woman is born with all her eggs and as she becomes older, the quality of the eggs deteriorates. Just as ageing eggs might trigger more miscarriages, so might this factor contribute to the increasing risk of genetic abnormalities in babies born to women over the age of 40. The most common genetic condition linked to this is Down Syndrome. Where, at 30 years, the risk of Down is about one in 885, it increases to about one in 365 at 35 years, and one in 110 at 40 years.
Health generally declines as a person gets older and conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure in pregnancy worry more women after the age of 40 years. Other circulatory problems like varicose veins and blood clots are also slightly more likely. Babies born to older mothers are often smaller due to such health problems and this can make their start in life more difficult. With good pregnancy care and the mother doing all she can to live healthily both before and during pregnancy, these problems can be minimised and mostly easily treated.
A person becomes so used to the independence of adult life by 40 years that being on 24-hour call and having to respond to a baby’s often unpredictable patterns and needs might be quite challenging for some older parents, especially if they’re very ordered and goal driven. Older moms and dads often need to recultivate the skill of playfulness and optimism. Younger parents may also be more self-centered and not be prepared to make far-reaching sacrifices for a baby that parents in their 40s will.
Of course, it may herald a change in friendships if your peers don’t have babies – although, as more women choose to have babies later, this is rapidly falling away as a potential problem. By the time the children are off your hands you might feel there is less time left to enjoy what life offers to you as a couple, but most say that the extensive time before starting a family satisfies that need.
Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals.