Does Age Really Matter?

What you need to know about pregnancy in your 20s, 30s and 40s.

ideal-age-baby_0.jpg

Ask several women what they think is the ideal age for pregnancy, and you'll get wildly different answers. Those who give birth in their early 20s benefit from seemingly boundless energy and über-resilient bodies; the 30-something new mom is grateful to have established herself in her career before taking maternity leave; the woman in her early 40s delivers with a strong sense of self and few qualms about being able to afford diapers.

But for every decade-related advantage, drawbacks exist. While age is a continuum—your eggs don't instantaneously shrivel the instant you extinguish the candles on your 35th birthday cake, for example—experts have a strong sense of which broad age groups are likely to confront specific physical, emotional, financial and relationship concerns when they become mothers.

Of course, these are generalizations. "Age and maturity do not always rise proportionally, and some women in their early 40s may be healthier than their 20-something counterparts, thanks to excellent lifestyle habits," says San Francisco-based pregnancy and postpartum psychologist Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D. "Everything depends on the woman's health, energy, personality and perspective on life." While you can't change your age, there are steps you can take to boost your odds of having a happy and healthy experience, no matter how old you are. Here's what you need to know.

IF YOU'RE 20-25

YOUR BODY: Physically, your body is primed for pregnancy and its demands. Fertility is high (though 7 percent of women do encounter trouble conceiving) and the risk for complications, such as hypertension or gestational diabetes, is low. Researchers know that the younger a woman is when her first baby is born, the lower her lifetime breast cancer risk is, though the exact mechanism is unknown.

While younger skin is generally more resilient than older skin, whether you'll develop stretch marks is largely determined by genetics. However, according to prenatal and postpartum fitness expert Lindsay Brin, author of How to Exercise While You're Expecting (Plume), "Younger women have an easier time regaining their prepregnancy body because their fascia—the layer of tissue that covers the muscles and acts as a sheath to keep our waistlines compact—have not been stretched out by previous pregnancies and/or weight gain."

More immediately, you'll benefit from boatloads of youthful energy. "Pulling an all-nighter with a barfing baby in my 20s was hard, but it didn't take quite the toll on me that it does now," confirms Charlotte Hilton Andersen, 32, who had her first child at 23 and her fifth at 31. Andersen and her husband, who live in Minneapolis, started young because "kids have more energy than a drill sergeant. We wanted to be able to enjoy them."

THE BABY: "The younger a woman is, the younger her eggs are, which means they are less prone to chromosomal mistakes," says Richard J. Paulson, M.D., director of the University of Southern California Fertility Program in Los Angeles. As a result, your baby's risk of any chromosomal abnormality (1 in 500) or of Down syndrome specifically (1 in 1,250) is relatively low. Because your eggs are so "fresh," the miscarriage rate—12 percent in the first trimester—is the lowest it will be from this point forward (the average for all ages is up to 25 percent).

YOUR MATURITY LEVEL: "Life experience helps us clarify what's important and what's not," Bennett says. "A younger couple may find themselves ill-prepared for the stress of a new baby," leading to arguments and marital dissatisfaction. On the upside, youth may lend a sense of fearlessness that older women, scarred by friends' parenting horror stories, might lack.

The loss of spontaneity that comes with motherhood may hit young moms harder than their elder counterparts, who've already had a chance to sow their wild oats; after all, breastfeeding and last-minute Vegas getaways don't exactly mix. "I often hear mothers in their 20s say they feel old prematurely," Bennett says. "Suddenly, they can't run out the door whenever they wish."

YOUR CAREER AND FINANCES: Most young moms haven't yet had the chance to climb the corporate ladder, so they lack the career stability, nest egg or maternity benefits of women who work for a decade or longer before conceiving. Indeed, Andersen's family took a huge financial hit. "We definitely feel we're behind our friends who have fancy houses, nice cars and no kids," she says. Bennett suggests that a young mom who wants to get a toehold in a career while her kids are still young take online courses or work part time.

YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: Chances are your child will grow up with young grandparents, or even with great-grandparents: free babysitting for you (assuming the folks aren't off seeing the world) and oodles of opportunities for your child to feel loved.

But with more women waiting to have their first child, you might feel disconnected from your friends, even bitter toward your baby. "As one of the first to get pregnant, I felt like I lost an entire group of friends," Andersen remembers. "We moved out of the city and they stayed, going clubbing while we hit the children's museums and were asleep by 9 p.m."

Don't let jealousy or resentment mark your new-mom experience. "Make a list of what you think you lost and build more of that into your life," Bennett suggests. Miss going dancing with the girls on Saturday nights? Ask your partner to stay home; you can repay the favor next week.

You can also view this as an opportunity to grow your stable of friendships. "New friends offer fresh perspectives," says Diane Ross Glazer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Tarzana, Calif., who had a child in her 20s, 30s and 40s. "Because they are at the same stage in life, their advice and insights can be relevant and helpful."

IF YOU'RE 26 -34

YOUR BODY: "A woman who has her first child at 34 is likely, in health terms, to be 14 years younger than a woman who gives birth at 18," says University of Texas-Austin sociology professor John Mirowsky, Ph.D., who has led research on the subject funded by the National Institute on Aging. In other words, women who give birth in their late teens develop more health problems than those who wait until their early 30s.

True, natural fertility begins to gradually decline at 30 (the infertility rate for women age 26 to 29 is 9 percent, increasing to 15 percent for 30- to 34-year-olds), although the odds that fertility treatments will work remain high. But by delaying motherhood, women protect themselves from job, relationship and financial stresses that "make them biologically susceptible to disease and psychologically susceptible to poor health habits," Mirowsky explains. And fortunately, your energy and stamina should still be high. However, many studies have found the Cesarean section rate to be nearly twice as high among women ages 30 to 34 versus those in their 20s.

THE BABY: Miscarriage rates rise to 12 percent to 15 percent. Down syndrome risk remains low until age 30, when it is 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 400 for any chromosomal abnormality; by 35, the risk rises to 1 in 400 and 1 in 200, respectively. Children born to mothers who were 30 or older at first delivery are more likely to score higher in high school testing, a likely effect of advanced parental education and resources, says Elizabeth Gregory, Ph.D., director of the Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies program at the University of Houston.

YOUR MATURITY LEVEL: You're in a chronological hotspot when it comes to preparing for motherhood. "You still have the youthfulness of your 20s but are moving toward the responsibility and maturity of your 40s," observes Glazer. However, women who have spent most of their 20s in school (women account for 58 percent of adults ages 25 to 29 with advanced degrees) might want to delay pregnancy as they establish their careers.

Your body image may benefit from an age-ripened self-esteem. "In my 20s, it sucked seeing my nonpregnant friends in low-rise jeans and bikinis while I had my maternity belly," says Andersen. "But in my 30s, I was comfortable enough with my pregnant body to wear more body-conscious clothing. And after my third baby was born, I was more comfortable with my changed body than my friends who were experiencing stretch marks and mummy tummies for the first time."

YOUR CAREER AND FINANCES: "At this age, women often feel they're at a crossroads, career-wise: that if they choose the mommy path and stay home, they're saying goodbye to their career," Bennett says. "On the other hand, there's a tremendous amount of guilt and worry that if they return to work, their baby will bond with the day-care provider."

Bennett suggests that you decide what is best for you and your family at this time, and make a date on your calendar in six months to reassess. "Give yourself total permission to change your mind," she says. "That way you can stop obsessing and you're not locked in. Don't let fear make your decision for you—that always backfires."

YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: Mothers in this age group frequently enjoy strong bonds with fellow moms. And assuming you and your partner are both armed with emotional maturity, your relationship is likely in prime shape to handle parenthood. On the other hand, Sandwich Generation mothers "often find themselves pulled between caring for their children and their aging parents, which can lead to burnout and depression," Bennett notes.

IF YOU'RE 35 -40

YOUR BODY: One in 5 women in this age group will have trouble conceiving, with fertility nosediving at 38. Still, more children are now born to women 35 and older than to teenagers, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. In fact, 1 in 7 U.S. births is now to women 35 and older (in 1970, it was just 1 in 100).

Hypertension affects 10 percent to 20 percent of pregnant women in this age group (versus 4 percent to 7 percent for women ages 20 to 25); gestational diabetes is two to three times more common in women age 35 and older than in younger women; and recent studies show the risk is even higher if the woman has gained weight over the years. Maintaining an ideal weight through exercise and healthy eating offers some protection.

THE BABY: One in 4 pregnancies among women in this age group will end in miscarriage, and the risk of chromosomal abnormalities goes up exponentially: At 38, the risk of any chromosomal abnormality is 1 in 100. While you can't prevent such abnormalities (aside from using donor eggs), accurate prenatal screening and diagnostic tests do exist. Women age 35 and older are more likely to conceive twins, regardless of whether they use fertility treatments, because hormonal changes increase the likelihood of multiple egg release during ovulation.

YOUR MATURITY LEVEL: Susan Lusty, 46, of Seattle, is happy she waited until age 38 to become a mom. "I had a life full of travel and adventure before having kids," she says. "I would have felt like I was missing out on the world if I had been saddled with a child in my 20s or early 30s." Gregory says this was a common sentiment among the 113 35-plus-year-old women she interviewed for her book Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books): "You have a sense of having seen the world and grown through your responses, so when you're ready to start a family, you bring more resources. You know yourself better."

But knowing yourself better means knowing what you like, and Gregory says older women may struggle with adapting to a new lifestyle, one that may require you to skip the yoga class you've faithfully attended twice a week for the past decade. Combat any resentment by recasting your new schedule in a positive light: Soon you'll be able to teach your 3-year-old how to Downward Dog.

YOUR CAREER AND FINANCES: By this point, you are likely to own a home and are able to start saving for your child's education. You've carved out your career niche and proven yourself at work. Lusty, who had been vice president at two public relations firms before her son's arrival, says she didn't fear a mass exodus of clients when she got pregnant because "they knew I'd be back." After his birth, she worked from home—a nonexistent luxury when she was younger and trying to prove herself at an agency.

YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: Your parents are likely retired or about to be, which means they might be freed up to help you. Eighty-five percent of women older than 35 are married, so ideally you'll have your partner's physical and emotional support. You've watched some friends raise their families and learned from their successes and mistakes, notes Gregory, who had her first child at 39. (Her grandmother had her eighth baby at the same age!) "Draw on them as allies," she says. "They can offer valuable input on their decision-making processes."

Then again, with more women delaying childbirth, you'll benefit from a community of women who are figuring out older motherhood alongside you. Cathy Gast Feroe, 62, from Larkspur, Calif., gave birth at 24, 25 and 39 and cherished this sense of camaraderie after her third delivery: "I feared I'd be the oldest mom on the playground, but I met so many other women having babies in their late 30s after pursuing further education and careers who could now take quality time for themselves and their babies."

IF YOU'RE 40-plus

YOUR BODY: Births to mothers 40 and older more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 50,245 to 113,576. Still, nearly one-third of women older than 40 will struggle with infertility. And rates of both pre-existing and gestational diabetes are three to six times higher. But waiting offers a silver lining: Women who have their first baby at 40 or older live longer on average, likely a result of enhanced access to medical care and financial stability.

According to fitness expert Brin, the average 40-year-old will have gained 10 pounds of fat and lost 5 pounds of muscle since turning 30. "That slows your metabolism and makes it harder to bounce back after pregnancy," she says. Maintain a regular exercise regimen during and after pregnancy and practice Kegels to counter age- and weight-related pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, urinary incontinence and uterine prolapse. Join a fitness center with day care and remember: Lifting children is a weight-bearing exercise! Gregory notes that many of these moms will enter menopause when their child is a teen—a double hor- monal whammy that "might strike fear into a few hearts," she says.

THE BABY: Half of these preg- nancies will end in miscarriage, and the risk of chromosomal abnormalities nearly doubles from age 35 to 40 (it's 1 in 60 at age 40; 1 in 40 at age 42). Eldercare will be a responsibility for most children of older parents. Lighten your own kids' future load by purchasing long-term health care insurance for yourself, and do everything you can to stay healthy.

YOUR MATURITY LEVEL: New moms over age 40 often fully embody the "I can have it all— serially" philosophy. "They feel like they've done the things they wanted—whether that's climbing Mount Everest, practicing law or partying—before having kids," Gregory says. They report feeling more comfortable in their own skin and having more patience than they did in their 20s or 30s. Lusty recalls the week her second child was born, when she was 41: "My husband had the stomach flu and was quarantined. My grandmother died, I had no help, and both the baby and my 3-year-old were crying. I just laughed and thought, 'I can do this.' I don't know if I would've had that sense of calmness when I was younger."

YOUR CAREER AND FINANCES: By this point, hopefully, you've saved enough money that you can afford to hire help. Women in their 40s excel at time management, Glazer says, equipping them to effectively juggle work and parenthood. Data indicate that women who wait to become moms are more likely than others to keep working because they've got the clout to negotiate flexible hours as well as a decent pay grade. But considering you've already been working for 20-plus years, you may feel ready to dial back a bit at work, quit working entirely for a while or even explore new career options.

YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: According to Gregory's research, older working moms often feel more isolated in the suburbs, where many women are younger and tend to stay home with their children. Consider this if you decide to move, or consider joining a Later Moms support group. Be prepared to face some criticism along the lines of, "But you'll be 60 when she's in college!" "Ignore them," Bennett advises. Instead, cultivate the attitude, "We'll love this child so much and we'll launch her into the future with other loving, caring people." Ensure that your child will be cared for after you are gone by updating your will, establishing a trust fund and handpicking mentors in advance. "If you're in a position to love that child and give her what she needs, go for it and don't let anyone tell you it's not possible or you shouldn't," Bennett says.

close