Contrary to the idea that it's better to have a baby on the younger side, a recent study finds that delaying motherhood might have health benefits down to the road.
We've all heard that fertility decreases every year as we age, an idea that makes women everywhere a little bit nervous if they don't feel ready to be a mom yet. But there's good news for the ladies out there who simply aren't ready for motherhood in their early twenties: Putting off motherhood until after you're 25 could have positive health benefits down the road.
A recent study found that women who delay motherhood until their late twenties or early thirties are likely to have better health by the time they reach 40 years old compared to women who gave birth between the ages of 15 and 24. But is this for purely biological reasons?
Fit Pregnancy spoke with study author Kristi Williams, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, to gain a better understanding of how birth age really affects health.
"A strictly biological model would suggest that early childbearing is better for the organism," Williams said. "Really it's a more socioeconomic or sociological model which would suggest the opposite hypothesis."
The lifestyle factors that go hand-in-hand with later motherhood are obvious. "We know that childbirth kind of disrupts the life cycle. It can interfere with a woman's ability to finish college or to pursue a career, depending on when it occurs. That kind of life course model would suggest that later [childbirth] is more advantageous to women because it allows them to delay childbearing until their careers are established. Both of those things—having a well-paying job and a high level of education—are associated with better health," Williams said.
But that doesn't mean delaying childbirth for as long as possible is always the right answer. "No individual woman should look at these results and use this study as a source of information about when she should have her child," Williams explained. "The optimal [age] is going to differ for everyone."
Benefits vs. risks
Williams also added that she can't say for certain whether or not the benefits of delaying motherhood outweigh the risks of having a child later in life. "We're only looking at one outcome," she said. "We're looking at the mother's health and what we're finding is that if there are any risks of delaying, they're outweighed by the benefits."
The professor and her colleagues studied data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to gather data collected since 1979. "The women are interviewed either every year or every other year. It's a really rich source of data," she said of the resource. "It has lots of information about childbearing, their marital histories, their employment histories. We've relied on this ongoing nationally representative study."
And marriage matters—but not like you think
Marriage plays a big role in Dr. Williams's ideas about which factors really have the power to influence later health. "Our second key finding is that, at least for black women who have a non-marital first birth when they're early in life course, those who later marry actually have worse health than those who remain unmarried. I think that is a very important finding because it really cuts against this idea that we can use marriage as a policy lever to improve the wellbeing of single mothers and their children."
But again, Williams enforced the idea that the timing of childbirth needs to be a personal decision. "I think there's a tendency to look at these studies and think 'oh, I should use this when I'm trying to decide when to have my first child and I would urge caution in that. Rather than really sticking to what any individual woman should do, our results indicate that we as a society should really think about how we provide resources to women so that they can maximize their well-being and that of their children no matter when they have them," she said.