Housing crisis is forcing first-time buyers to delay starting a family
Rhona Mahony believes the housing shortage is causing couples to hold off having children, writes Mark O'Regan
The ongoing housing crisis is the latest pressure point forcing thousands of young couples to delay marriage and having children - thereby risking a range of health hazards which can affect older mothers.
Irish first-time mothers are now among the oldest in Europe and on average are having their first baby at age 30. We also have one of the highest proportions of women over 40 giving birth for the first time.
Meanwhile, the average age of marriage also continues to creep upwards and is now the highest on record. The typical groom is aged 35 and the bride is 33.
Difficulties in being able to buy a family home have now emerged as a key reason why many couples are postponing both marriage and parenthood.
A major obstacle is the amount couples must save for a deposit. Another major issue is the level of monthly mortgage repayments, which are increasingly out of sync with the typical earnings of those trying to get on the property ladder.
The average age of first-time home buyers is now 34.
This figure has jumped from 29 in 2006, and from 33 just a year ago, according to the Real Estate Alliance.
A knock-on consequence of these various trends is that an increasing number of women are having babies in their late 30s and 40s.
According to the CSO, the number of pregnant women in Ireland aged between 40 and 44 stood at 3,658 in 2011. This had risen to 3,978 last year. Even in the '45 and older' category - a cohort in which complications during pregnancy can increase significantly - the figure jumped from 169 in 2011 to 224 in 2015. Similarly, the number of pregnant women aged between 35 and 39 rose from 17,726 in 2011 to 18,527 in 2015.
Medical experts have now expressed growing concern over the country's move towards "older motherhood", which they point out increases the risk of various complications during pregnancy and birth. International medical evidence shows a direct link between a woman's age and the risk of problematic childbirth. Doctors also highlight the risk of declining fertility as women get older.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, believes the lack of affordable housing is having knock-on consequences in the area of pregnancy.
"Couples certainly want to have their nest worked out before they start their family. There's no doubt what we have seen in the economy in the last decade, or two decades, has been huge difficulty getting onto the property ladder, with young couples stuck in negative equity in small apartments, trying to get to more suitable accommodation for a family. When you think of all the apartment building, it's all for single people. All the apartment building in Dublin hasn't really been to accommodate families.
"We're planning families now, in a way perhaps we didn't before. People are deferring because they feel economically it's appropriate. Contraception is now so widely available, and normal in this population, that people are waiting until both economically and socially they're secure to start a family."
But Dr Mahony stressed that some women face the prospect of pregnancy-related complications if they wait too long to have their first child. She pointed out that 40pc of women attending for care at Holles Street hospital are now over 35. Thirty years ago the figure stood at 10pc. Furthermore, 10pc of women are now over the age of 40. Some 15 years ago the corresponding figure stood at 2pc. "The main complications we worry about are miscarriage and chromosomal anomalies," she added.