How your fertility is far from over at 40
Heidi Scrimgeour meets mums who gave birth later in life – and who hope to conceive again
When television presenter and mother Kirstie Allsopp urged women to "speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you're 35" she sparked a furore – another one – about whether we should prioritise babies or the boardroom. But is that pressure to procreate before you're past it real, or are we being sold a myth?
Fertility expert and author of Trying to Get Pregnant (and Succeeding) Marisa Peer (marisapeer.com) thinks we should treat the prevailing idea that fertility fizzles out by your 40th birthday with caution. "Those studies which suggest that women can't get pregnant after 40 were based on research from 200 years ago, so it's remarkable that we've accepted them as even relevant now because, back then, we didn't have the medicine, sanitation and lifestyle that we do now," she says.
"Your fertility doesn't end at 45. And when it does begin to decline, the body has a massive fight back and you start to ovulate from both ovaries simultaneously, which is why so many women in their 40s, who think they can't get pregnant, do conceive."
Peer knows what she's talking about – she got pregnant when she was 47, and rattles off the names of more than a dozen famous mothers who also had babies naturally in their 40s: Cherie Blair (45), Halle Berry (41 and 47) and Mariella Frostrup (41 and 43) to name just a few. Celine Dion was 42 when she had twins Nelson and Eddy, while Uma Thurman had her third child at 42.
Her advice to women who want to conceive on the 'wrong' side of 35? "Don't believe those statistics."
TV presenter Maura Derrane gave birth to her son Cal (43). And fellow presenter Pamela Flood gave birth to her daughter Elsie in October 2013 when she was 42. "It was never my choice to leave it late," she says. I never planned to be having my babies at this age. In an ideal world it would have been great having them in my early 30s but life didn't work out for me that way.
"You don't have a baby just because you've turned 32. It doesn't work that way."
According to Irish fertility clinic Sims (sims.ie), one in six couples experience difficulties conceiving a child, and it's well-documented that the chances of conceiving are significantly lower for women over 40 – you're half as fertile then as you were at 35, and the risk of miscarriage also increases with age, as does the chances of having a baby with congenital abnormalities.
Yet many fertility specialists agree that the number of women having children later in life is actually rising, and in the UK figures from the Office for National Statistics in 2012 show that the number of women having babies at 40 and older has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. That doesn't surprise blogger Claire Hegarty (48), who became a first-time mother in her 40s, despite being adamant for most of her life that she didn't want children.
Claire met her future husband at 29 and they married at 34, but says the couple didn't feel the urge to procreate. "Then, out of the blue, when I was about 38, I started feeling a profound need to have a child of my own, and my husband felt the same way," she explains.
Claire conceived, but had a miscarriage, and her doctor warned her that pregnancies have a higher chance of failing if the mother is over 35. "Having spent the best part of 38 years insisting that I didn't want to be a mother, I felt I had willed my body into submission and now it was just complying with my wishes," she says.
But shortly before her 42nd birthday, Claire was driving with the windows down when the smell of petrol suddenly made her stomach heave. "I realised that I hadn't had a period for a few months, so I took a pregnancy test – followed by two more – and they were all positive. I was thrilled, but I tried not to get too excited, remembering my doctor's words."
Claire was already three months pregnant and, at the age of almost 42, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Ciarán, now six.
Mandy Kelly had her first two children when she was 20 and 25, before meeting and marrying her husband, with whom she had two more children when she was 34 and 39. Now 41, she hopes to have a fifth child but, in contrast to Claire, she says that her last pregnancy brought her to an understanding of why women stop having babies after a certain age.
"My other three pregnancies were a breeze but I was 39 when I fell pregnant with my daughter, Freya, and I really felt my age," she says.
"I was sick from the day I peed on a stick. I lost two-and-a-half stone through morning sickness and I had heartburn, indigestion, insomnia and postnatal depression after she was born. It's definitely harder on your body when you're older."
But none of that has put Mandy off going for another baby in her 40s.
"It seems I have a stronger chance of having twins because of my age, which surprised me because I assumed my fertility would be on the wane. My husband is a twin too, so that's a real consideration, but I still hope to conceive again."
For both Mandy and Claire, the possibility of complications associated with having a child later in life was uppermost in their minds during their pregnancies – albeit because other people kept raising the issue.
'It's as if it's a given when you're an older mum that there'll be something 'wrong' with the baby, and people are very outspoken about that – I've had people ask why I'm being so selfish, or why I would want to 'risk it' at my age," Mandy says.
"But my brother was my mum's first child and he had cerebral palsy, and my husband and my daughter both have Type 1 diabetes. So anything can happen in any pregnancy is the way I see it."
"I had assumed that everyone would be delighted to hear that we were expecting, but that wasn't always the case," agrees Claire. "One friend urged me to think long and hard about the pregnancy, and another suggested I should have prenatal testing because of my age. Someone else said they thought I was either brave or selfish for having a child in my 40s."
Pregnancy in your 40s may also be coloured by the experiences of friends and relatives, too.
"You don't really hear about stillbirth and miscarriage much when you're having babies in your 20s but, by the time you reach your late 30s, you're likely to know people who've gone through those tragedies," she says.
"That does affect your outlook."
Despite the gloomy statistics, scaremongering and increased risks – not to mention their age – both Mandy and Claire would love to conceive again.
"My son's birth was the best day of my life," Claire says. "I finally understood what all the fuss was about over having babies! I was overjoyed – but it was tinged with regret that I had left it so late to become a mother, and reduced my chances of giving my son a sibling.
"But I'm so grateful that my body clock 'ticked' loudly enough to wake me up before it really was too late."