When is the best time to start a family?

Is there really an ideal time to have a baby? Experts and moms weigh in. By Tammy Jacks

When is the best time to have a baby? Nowadays, the answer to this question is complex and will vary from woman to woman. Unlike previous generations, when it was considered “normal” for women to get married and start their families in their early 20s and even in their late teens, it also depends largely on personal circumstances.

Today, research shows that women are having children later in life. According to statistics from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, women in the USA are having fewer children overall. The only group of women consistently having children, however, are those in their 40s.

ALSO SEE: Pregnancy in your 40s – what you need to know

Why are some women choosing to have a baby later?

Opinions vary, but some of the most common reasons why women choose to start a family later include:

  • Advances in reproductive technologies such as IVF, as well as genetic testing. Women in their late 30s and 40s can still conceive with the help of fertility treatments, despite their biological clocks ticking away.
  • Women are getting married later, compared to previous generations. However, according to the Pew Research Center, there’s been an increase in women choosing to have a baby over the age of 40 , even though they’ve never been married.
  • Families are pursuing travel, career and finance goals ahead of having children.
  • Screen time. Yep, as strange as it sounds, some studies have indicated more screen time means less sex. Couples spend time watching Netflix series together, rather than connecting in the bedroom.

Geographic location makes a difference

This isn’t the case in every country though. Research shows that in some developing countries, and more rural areas across the globe, the average age of women having first-time babies is between 21 and 22. It’s believed this is largely due to a lack of birth control.

A report in the New York Times, however, shows a sharp contrast. In developed countries such as the USA, Japan, Switzerland, Italy and South Korea, the average age of women having their first baby is 31.

ALSO SEE: Pregnancy at 35

So, when is the best age to have a baby?

Biologically speaking, women can have children as soon as they have a regular menstrual period until their late 40s, when fertility levels start to drastically decline.

However, experts believe the best time to have a baby is between the ages of 25 and 30, as this age range has been associated with the best outcome for mom and baby.  A study published in the Journal Social Forces says the optimal age for a woman to have her first child is age 30.

This is based on factors such as overall health, energy and fitness, physical impairment, chronic conditions, and aches and pains.

We asked two moms, (one who had her baby in her early 20s and another who became a mom in her late 30s) for their take on the ideal time to start a family.

The younger mom

37-year-old mom Stacey Williamson had her first child when she was 23. She initially felt isolated as a new, young mom.

“I remember going to friends’ houses as a new mom in my 20s, and while everyone was having fun and discussing where to go to for the next party, I was breastfeeding my daughter or worrying about her health and wellbeing. It also took me a while to recover from the birth, and I had to go through that alone.

Although I had plenty of energy in my 20s, the initial sleep deprivation and enormous responsibility I felt being a young mom was hard. None of my friends were even thinking about having children, so as I navigated my way through parenthood, I felt isolated at times. I felt as though no one truly understood some of the challenges I was facing. And because I was such a young mom, which is unusual these days, I also felt like the older moms at my daughter’s preschool were judging me. I’m sure it was all in my head, but that’s how I felt at the time.

Now, my daughter is a teenager, and we have such a close bond, so I don’t regret it one bit. However, I don’t feel I was emotionally ready to be a mother at that stage. I can see now, with my second and third child, that I’ve gained confidence and I’m more relaxed as an older mom. But I still wouldn’t change it, because my first born and I are so close.”

The older mom

51-year- old Michelle O’Donoghue struggled with infertility for 10 years before finally adopting her son when she was 38. Although she didn’t plan to become a mother so late in life, she realised it had its pros.

ALSO SEE: Adoption in South Africa – everything you need to know

“In retrospect, having my son later was the best thing for my husband and I. We spent the first 10 years of our marriage working on us, and it gave us time to cement our marriage and to build up our assets so that we were financially prepared to have a baby. I also felt more emotionally prepared as an older mom as I’d seen my friends go through motherhood and I knew what to expect. I was also more self-assured compared to when I was in my 20s. I was at the stage where I didn’t feel I needed to compete with other moms (which I often see with younger moms today).

The strain of being new parents didn’t affect my husband and I as much as it might with younger couples as we were ready to face this new chapter together. But it did take some adjustment. We weren’t quite prepared for the loss of “freedom” which comes with caring for a baby who need our attention 24/7. And the sleep deprivation was hard! We were used to travelling and coming and going as we pleased, so it took some time to get used to our son’s routine.

Now, I’m one of the older moms in my friendship circle – and while I’m not personally threatened by it, my son is aware of it and sometimes wishes we were younger. I think the key for us is to stay as healthy and as active as possible. Our son certainly keeps us on our toes!”

The verdict?

There is no perfect time to fall pregnant and start a family. From both a physical and emotional point of view, there are both pros and cons of having children at a young age as well as later in life. Ultimately, however, it’s still a personal decision.

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