Is the fertility timebomb really ticking?
As an ESRI report claims that women are waiting longer to have children, Chrissie Russell meets three mothers who successfully had families later in life
After years of society being up in arms about teenage pregnancy, the pendulum has swung the other way -- and the trend now is for older mums. Celebrities like Desperate Housewives actress Marcia Cross (47) and Jennifer Lopez (40) are leading the way -- the two are mothers of young twins.
In Ireland, the average age for a woman to have her first child is now 31 -- up from 28.8 in the 1980s. More than a tenth of Irish women who gave birth for the first time in 2007 were over 35, compared with 9pc in 1999.
Moreover, more women are continuing to have children later in life, adding to their brood well into their late 30s and 40s. A new ESRI report this week claimed that "delayed fertility has become the norm". And yet experts continue to warn strongly against leaving it so late. To any would-be mum in her late 30s, the literature is daunting.
Just last month, a study by scientists at St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities revealed that by the age of 30, a woman has just 12pc of the two million or so eggs she was born with -- by 40 she will only have 3pc. Recent research by the University of California also showed that a woman in her 40s is at a 50pc greater risk of having a child with autism than a mum in her 20s.
The risk of miscarriage rises from 15pc to 25pc in a woman over 40 and the baby has a greater risk of developing Down Syndrome.
Dr Scott Sills, an IVF consultant at Dublin's Sims clinic, says: "Age is the single biggest factor in determining reproductive outcome. The optimum time is in your 20s to early 30s; at 35 there's a drop in fertility, and at 38 it drops again and keeps dropping."
He adds: "The average age of menopause is 51, but even if a woman keeps having periods until this time, the eggs are not usually of the same quality."
IVF is one of the options increasing in popularity but it's by no means a sure bet. The treatment comes with a 39pc success rate in women over 35 and, at over €4,000 a cycle, it's a costly gamble.
Given the weight of medical evidence, Dr Sills is realistic in his advice. "There are many reasons why women are having children later and of course there are fantastic medical advances that can help accommodate that," he says.
"But I would advise women, if they are able to, to try sooner rather than later for a child."
But many older mums are fed up being drilled with the problems of having a baby later in life and being labelled as career girls that have left baby-making too late.
"I think it's infuriating and a very limited view," says Jan, founder of mothersover40.com, a website set up to support women trying to conceive later in life. "Of all the women I've spoken to in the seven years since starting the site, only a very small minority have waited to build a career before trying for a child.
"Not everyone meets the right partner at the right time and not everyone is able to have children when they start trying."
Jan (50) had her fourth child at the age of 40 and after a successful pregnancy and healthy delivery she set up the website to reassure other women that 'fertility experts' aren't always worth listening to.
She says: "I think that the attitude towards older mums is unnecessarily negative. Many women over 40 can conceive naturally and have a healthy baby.
"Why not focus on what you can bring as a mum, rather than what you can't?"
With more time spent in education, greater difficulties finding employment and housing, as well as prevailing attitude in Western Europe that is focussed on attaining personal goals before starting a family, it seems the trend of the older mum could be set to stay.
But Irene Gunning, chief executive of the Irish PreSchool Play Association, says we shouldn't get too carried away about the age question.
She says: "A younger mum may be able to run around after her child more and an older mum has plenty to offer in terms of stability and maturity but all mothers, regardless of age, face the same issues and the important thing is to make sure they have support."