Schools should teach girls to have babies while still in their 20s instead of waiting until their 30s when the risks of infertility and medical complications are higher, a leading obstetrician has said.
Professor Fionnuala McAuliffe, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital and head of obstetrics and gynaecology at UCD's medical school, said women should consider starting their families earlier to avoid potential health complications or risk struggling to get pregnant.
"We need to get the message out there that, biologically, women do much better when they have their children in their 20s instead of their 30s," she told the Irish Independent.
"I'm not encouraging women to have a baby come hell or high water. The message is for women in their 20s who are in a stable relationship but are deferring motherhood because they want to do other things.
"We come across couples who have been together since their early 20s but are not planning to have a family till their early 30s. Of course, fertility is starting to decline at that stage; the orange light goes on at 35 and the red light goes on at 40. The older the mother is, the more likely she is to have complications."
Ireland is now home to the oldest mothers in Europe. Women here are 30.3 years old, on average, when they give birth for the first time, the HSE reported in March. In addition, a higher proportion of women in Ireland are aged 40 or older when they first become mothers than in any other country in the rest of the EU.
Prof McAuliffe said that information about the optimum age to reproduce should be highlighted at second level on the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum, which includes relationships and sexuality education.
"All schools have education programmes around family, nutrition, lifestyle, and that would be an ideal place" to "raise awareness among schoolchildren that there are medical and biological issues" around giving birth at an older age, she said.
At 17, Ellen O'Keeffe thought her life plan would fall gloriously into place. She would earn a degree in applied chemistry, find a job in the industry, and settle down and have children young. What she hadn't bargained on was becoming a mother at the age of 21.