More and more women in the UK are having kids later – with the average age for a first-time mother reaching 30 in 2016, after steadily rising from 28 in 2014. Women are spending more time focussing on their careers, and this, combined with other social and economic factors, and high-profile examples of older mothers, is convincing more women to start a family later. In 2017, the number of women having babies in their 40s overtook the number of women having babies under 20 for the first time in 70 years. With these figures, it is more important than ever that doctors and members of the public are well versed in the potential risks late pregnancies can carry both to the mother and to the unborn baby.
Studies from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists shows that the optimal time for child bearing is between the ages of 20 and 35. After 35, the number and quality of egg cells produced by a woman begins to decrease. Around 10% of women will experience early ovarian aging, where this process begins to happen before 35, but after that age a woman may find it more difficult to conceive.
Even with IVF, conceiving a child can be very difficult for a woman over 35. It is important that women approaching this age are made aware of the difficulties they may face as this can have serious psychological consequences for a woman who wants to have a baby but cannot. Many women view IVF as the answer to fertility problems in later life but the actual live birth rate for mothers over 35 who conceive via IVF is only 31%. This success rate decreases with age and mothers who are 42 only have a 5% success rate with IVF.
Older mothers and their unborn babies do face a slightly higher risk of developing complications during pregnancy. This is because of changes in the reproductive organs that occur during the aging process as well as the overall health of the mother. One of the most well-known increased risks with a later pregnancy is the increased risk of a miscarriage. Studies show that 9% of recognised pregnancies in mothers aged 20-24 end in miscarriage. This number rises to around 20% in mothers aged 35-39 and rises again to more than 50% of pregnancies of mothers aged 42 ending in miscarriage.
Another high-profile risk in older mothers is the chance that the baby will be born with Down’s Syndrome. According to the National Institutes of Health, at 25 your risk of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome is around 1 in 1,250. By the time you are 40, the risk increases to a 1 in 100 chance. Mothers over 35 can be offered genetic counselling to help them understand the increased risks and access test to gauge the likelihood of their baby having the syndrome.
Other health risks associated with late pregnancies include the increased risk of
high blood pressure;
increased likelihood of multiple pregnancy; and
increased risks of a prolonged labour, complications in labour, and increased likelihood of the mother needing assistance in labour.