It’s a trend many Americans are seeing firsthand among their family members and friends, and it’s supported by government data: more women are delaying having children until they reach their thirties or forties.
In 2012 birth rates for women in their thirties and forties rose even as they dropped for women in their twenties and reached a historic low for teenagers,1 continuing a two-decade trend: between 1990 and 2008, pregnancy rates declined for women in all US demographic groups except those in their thirties and forties.2 About 40 percent of all babies in the United States are now born to women over 30, and almost 15 percent-—one in seven—are born to women 35 and older.1
Experts in fertility and reproduction intensely debate the pros and cons of this trend. But what are the facts? What should women 30 and older who are contemplating pregnancy know and expect?
Getting Pregnant: Fertility after Age 30
Every woman has the most oocytes (immature egg cells) she will ever have before she is even born: At 20 weeks’ gestation, a female fetus has 6 to 7 million oocytes; at birth, 1 to 2 million. By the time she has her first period, she has about 250,000 left; by age 37, about 25,000.3
As a woman gets older, her egg cells are more likely to have genetic abnormalities such as too many or too few chromosomes. (The normal number is 23; when an egg is fertilized by a sperm that also has 23 chromosomes, the resulting embryo will have the normal complement of 46.) Most of the time, when an embryo has a chromosomal abnormality, pregnancy either doesn’t occur or the woman has an early miscarriage.
At age 30 a healthy, fertile woman has a 20 percent chance of getting pregnant each month that she tries, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. By age 40 that chance is less than 5 percent per monthly cycle.4
But the rate at which fertility declines differs from one woman to another, for reasons not clearly understood.
“Some women can get pregnant at age 40 and some women can’t—and we really don’t know why,” says Anne Z. Steiner, MD, MPH, associate professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.
Dr. Steiner directs Time to Conceive, a research study involving 750 women ages 30 to 44 that is seeking to identify hormonal and other factors affecting the ability of women in this age group to get pregnant. Preliminary findings from Time to Conceive suggest that possible differences in the rate of fertility decline between women who have gotten pregnant before age 30 and those trying to get pregnant for the first time after that age.
“Among healthy, nonobese women ages 30 to 44 who have been pregnant before, we’re not seeing large declines in fertility until age 40,” Dr. Steiner explains. “By contrast, in the group that has never been pregnant before, we start to see a significant drop-off in fertility at age 34 or 35.”
Dr. Steiner says she advises patients in their early thirties who are concerned about declining fertility that “they have a few years before they need to worry. For women who come to me at 35 who have never been pregnant, my advice is they need to start thinking about trying to get pregnant in the next six months.”
“The optimal age range for childbearing is probably between 20 and 34,” says Kiran B. Tam Tam, MBBS, MS, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. At 35 or older, the statistical risk of a range of pregnancy complications begins to increase (see sidebar “Possible Pregnancy Complications in Older Mothers”).
Importance of Preconception Care
The best time to begin addressing pregnancy risks in an older mother is before she gets pregnant, says Rebecca L. Shiffman, MD, a maternal/fetal medicine specialist at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“A woman who is in really good health and physical shape before she gets pregnant is more likely to have a healthy pregnancy,” says Dr. Shiffman. “I always say that the first prenatal visit should be before conception.”
Ensuring a Safe and Healthy Pregnancy at Age 30 and Older
As with women who get pregnant before they are 30, women who are over 30 can take proactive steps to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
Before Getting Pregnant
Choose an obstetrician-gynecologist with whom you feel comfortable and who has experience with pregnancies in women over 30.
If you or your partner smokes, stop. Smoking makes it harder to get pregnant. If you do get pregnant, smoking increases the risk of a miscarriage and of the baby’s being born too early, having a low birth weight, or having a birth defect such as a cleft palate.
If you are overweight, try to shed those extra pounds. Like smoking, being overweight makes it harder to get pregnant. If you do get pregnant, those extra pounds will increase your risk of a long list of pregnancy complications.
See your doctor for a physical exam.
Get checked for high blood pressure and diabetes. If you have either condition, consider holding off trying to get pregnant until it is well controlled.
If you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure or diabetes, talk with your doctor about the medications you are taking. Your doctor may recommend switching to medications that are safer to take during pregnancy.
Consider seeing a genetic counselor to assess your family history and risk of passing on a genetic condition.
Keep all of your appointments for prenatal care.
Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.
Take a prenatal vitamin and a folic acid supplement daily.
Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs.
Talk with your doctor before taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Talk with your doctor about noninvasive prenatal testing (see sidebar “Noninvasive Prenatal Testing Becomes a Reality”).
Consider being tested with either chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis for genetic conditions, including Down syndrome, in the fetus (see “Screening for Genetic Disorders” at end of article).
Consider an ultrasound fetal anatomy survey at about 20 weeks to check for physical abnormalities in the fetus.
The Good News
Although women who postpone childbearing until age 30 or older may face more complications than do younger women both in getting pregnant and during pregnancy, some research suggests that later motherhood may offer benefits for both mothers and children.
Children up to age five born to 40-year-old mothers had fewer unintentional injuries, better language development, and fewer social and emotional difficulties than children the same age born to younger mothers.5
Children ages three to 10 born to mothers 30 and older were taller and slimmer than those of younger mothers.6
Women who had children at age 35 or older were happier long-term than women who had children earlier in life.7
2.Ventura SJ, Curtin SC, Abma JC, Henshaw SK. Estimated pregnancy rates and rates of pregnancy outcomes for the United States, 1990–2008. US Centers for Disease Control website. Available at . Accessed October 3, 2013.
3.Balasch J, Gratacós E. Delayed childbearing: effects on fertility and the outcome of pregnancy. Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy. 2011;29(4):263-73. doi: 10.1159/000323142.
5.Sutcliffe AG, Barnes J, Belsky J, Gardiner J, Melhuish E. The health and development of children born to older mothers in the United Kingdom: observational study using longitudinal cohort data. BMJ 2012;345:e5116. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5116.
6.Savage T, Derraik JGB, Miles HL, Mouat F, Hofman PL, Cutfield WS. Increasing maternal age is associated with taller stature and reduced abdominal fat in their children*. PLoS ONE* 8(3):e58869. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058869.
7.Myrskylä M, Margolis R. Happiness: before and after the kids. 2012. Rostock, Germany: Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. MPIDR working paper WP 2012-013. Available at . Accessed October 3, 2013.
8.American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Genetics and The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine Publications Committee. Noninvasive Prenatal Testing for Fetal Aneuploidy. Committee Opinion Number 545. December 2012. Available at . Accessed October 4, 2013.
9.Devers PL, Cronister A, Ormond KE, Facio F, Brasington CK, Flodman P. Noninvasive prenatal testing/noninvasive prenatal diagnosis: the position of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Journal of Genetic Counseling. 2013;22(3):291-95.
One Woman’s Story: A First-Time Mother at 46
When Cherrill Spencer of Palo Alto, California, married at age 40, it was a first marriage for both her and her husband, Rick. Neither had children and both, she says, were “on the fence” about doing so. Both scientists, they knew about the increased risk of birth defects in children born to older mothers. Cherrill also knew that women her age had an elevated risk of miscarriage and that the odds of getting pregnant at all might be against her.
On the plus side, apart from periodic back pain caused by a degenerated vertebral disc, her general health was good—she had never smoked, did not drink alcohol, was not overweight, and did not have high blood pressure or diabetes.
When the couple decided to try for a pregnancy, they set about it methodically. Cherrill took her temperature every morning to check when she was close to ovulating. (Basal body temperature rises by about half a degree when the ovaries release an egg.) “My periods had always been regular, so that helped,” she says.
After about seven months, she had a positive pregnancy test but miscarried a few weeks later. Then, inexplicably, she came down with chickenpox. The couple was advised to wait a while before trying again. Cherrill’s second pregnancy ended in another early miscarriage, and they had to wait a few more months. That summer she took Clomid® (clomiphene), an oral fertility drug that stimulates ovulation. In late October she got pregnant again.
“Third time lucky,” she says. She was now 45. At the childbirth classes she and Rick attended, “all the women were 15 to 20 years younger than me, but many of them were having a worse time in pregnancy than I was. I had some morning sickness but not that much. I had less back pain than I did before I was pregnant.”
She attended all of her prenatal care appointments and took the vitamin and folic acid supplements her obstetrician-gynecologist recommended. At about 10 weeks, she underwent chorionic villus sampling, a test to diagnose genetic abnormalities in the fetus. The results revealed no abnormalities.
Although preterm labor and delivery is another risk that older mothers face, Cherrill’s baby wasn’t in a hurry. A healthy girl weighing 6 pounds, 15 ounces, she was born about a week after her due date and four and a half months after her mother’s forty-sixth birthday.
That was in August 1994. Cherrill and Rick’s daughter, Sierra, is now 19 and a sophomore in college.
In the years since her own late pregnancy, Cherrill says she has talked to many women, other scientists, who have reached their midthirties without having children and are worried that it might be too late. “I point to my own experience to show it can be done.”
Screening for Genetic Disorders: Guidelines Now Focus on Risk, Not Age
Amniocentesis (amnio) and chorionic villus sampling (CVS) are prenatal diagnostic tests to identify genetic disorders. Best known as tests for Down syndrome, they can also detect many other disorders caused by chromosomal abnormalities. Both tests involve using a needle to draw fluid from the amniotic sac (amnio) or villi from the placenta (CVS). Amnio is usually performed during or after the fifteenth week of pregnancy; CVS, between the tenth and twelfth weeks. Women who opt for the testing undergo one test or the other, not both. Both tests carry a small risk of inducing a miscarriage.
Since the 1970s doctors have routinely offered these tests to pregnant women ages 35 and older, who are at higher risk than younger women of having a baby with a genetic disorder. Thirty-five became the cutoff because at that age the risk of the procedure’s inducing a miscarriage was deemed about equal to the risk of having a baby with Down syndrome.
Recommendations for who should be offered screening with amnio or CVS changed in 2007. The new guidelines abolished the age 35 cutoff and recommended that doctors first offer less-invasive blood or ultrasound tests to screen all pregnant women, regardless of age, for genetic disorders. Women whose test results signal an increased risk of having a baby with Down syndrome or other genetic disorder should then be offered genetic counseling and the option to undergo either amnio or CVS.
Amnio and CVS remain the “gold standard” tests for detecting genetic disorders, although noninvasive prenatal tests are becoming popular options (see sidebar “Noninvasive Prenatal Testing Becomes a Reality”).
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, acog.org/For_Patients
ReproductiveFacts.org, reproductivefacts.org; resources for patients about fertility, infertility, and other issues related to reproduction from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine
Elizabeth Gregory, Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books, 2012)