CAREER women are struggling to conceive because they are leaving pregnancy too late by putting work ahead of motherhood, a leading Irish maternity expert has warned.
Female professionals should prioritise starting a family and be supported in the workplace to have their children young, according to Professor John Higgins, an internationally renowned consultant obstetrician/ gynaecologist based in Cork.
Professor Higgins said delaying motherhood to progress in work is "a mistake" that is leaving women in their late 30s distraught and needing help to conceive, or facing childlessness.
Huge pressure to excel in the workplace has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of older mothers in private care in consultants' clinics.
Ireland has the oldest first-time mothers in Europe, with the average age at which a woman has her first child standing at 31 here and 29 across all of the EU. More than a quarter of all births in Ireland are to women aged 35 years and over, figures show.
Professor Higgins – who headed up the reconfiguration of the Irish hospital system – told the Sunday Independent: "From 35, fertility starts to fall off. A lot of professionals, particularly private patients in their late 30s, put off having a family and that's a mistake. They then they find themselves in a terrible situation, they feel the clock ticking, it's almost palpable.
"They are wishing they hadn't left it so late and if they need some form of assisted conception, the likelihood of success there too correlates with their age.
"Part of the challenge with the older mother is to try and get people to relax about the whole thing and that they will be OK, but the angst is switched on."
He advised: "If a young doctor was to tell me they wanted to start a family, but they were worried about their
career, I would say: go ahead and have that family and don't be too concerned. Don't put it off.
"Women think: 'I want to get established first. I'm just starting in the workplace and I am competing with men who don't have to do it.'''
He believes as a society we need to support and encourage women to have their children early. "The emphasis needs to be, at the early stages of their career, to make it very acceptable for women to take time out. Young women heading into a career should feel free enough not to have to delay it.
"That makes things more difficult. It's not the norm, it shouldn't become the norm – and it is becoming the norm for certain professional groups. They can't do it, they run into problems trying to conceive when they are older and it takes a lot more out of them."
He said the rising rate of Caesarean sections amongst Irish women was also linked to age, as well as to obesity and cultural shifts.
A recent study showed that the rate of C-sections in Irish mothers was twice that of Eastern European women who gave birth here. Nearly 20 per cent of Irish-born women required an emergency C-section, compared with 12 per cent of women from countries that joined the EU after 2004.
Professor Higgins added: "Eastern Europeans are young, they are fit, they are quite slim... we have an epidemic of obesity so a lot of our patients are overweight and they're older. Age and obesity are risk factors for increased rate of C-section, and we have a particular culture as well.
"You get on to your fourth baby, you've done it all before and your sister is getting married on Saturday . . . you are going to say, 'Thanks very much, I need to get home.'''