Are you over 40 and thinking about getting pregnant?

Like many friends, colleagues and clients, I had my children later on in life. I was 36 when my son was born after various fertility treatments. I then gave birth to my daughters, without assistance, at the ages of 38 and 40. Because of my ‘advanced maternal-age’ my pregnancies were technically considered to be high-risk. What exactly are these risks? And if it is so risky, why are more and more women over 40 having babies?  As a doula and childbirth educator, I was very curious to find out the answers in order to better serve my clients.

Portrait of birth in the U.S.

Statistics show that women are having babies later in life, and the fastest rising age bracket for having babies is women over 40. In 2011, the CDC indicated that almost four million babies were born in the United States. Almost eight thousand of these babies were born to women 45 or older, more than double the number in 1997. And 569 of them were born to women age 50 or older representing a 375% increase. The general fertility rate, however, declined to the lowest rate ever reported for the United States, but the birth rate for women aged 40–44 was the highest rate for women in this age group since 1967.

Who wants to have a baby at 40?!

So, who are these women having babies when they reach mid-life? If they are anything like I was, they were off traveling and studying in their 20’s, and then climbing the corporate ladder and looking for love in their 30’s! And then, these well-educated, financially stable, and healthy 40-somethings realize that they do want kids after all! Others have been trying to get pregnant for a while or they remarry and want to have children with their new spouse. Others decide to finally have a baby on their own as they haven’t found the right partner.

How scary is being pregnant over 40?

Sometimes I think I was lucky to not have been aware of all the risks when I was pregnant. Had I known, I may have been too afraid to even try having babies!

Please keep in mind that the following statistics are there to inform, and not to scare, and that the majority of moms over 40 have smooth pregnancies without complications, and give birth to lovely, healthy babies.

Getting pregnant at 40 almost seems like a miracle.

  • By puberty, girls have approximately 400,000 viable ova (eggs) and this number diminishes every year until menopause when there are none left.
  • By the age of 30 only 12 % of ova are left on average.
  • By the age of 40 just three per cent remain.

No wonder one out of two women over 40 require fertility treatments in order to conceive! And when you finally do get pregnant, naturally or with assistance, unfortunately, things don’t necessarily get easier from there:

  • Older, less healthy eggs mean a higher risk of anomaly which leads to a 35% risk of miscarriage in women ages 40 to 44 and 50% in women over 45.
  • The risk of Down’s syndrome for women over 40 is 1 in 100, compared to 1 in 1250 at age 25. At 48 years old, the risk is 1 in 16.
  • One in every eight mothers over 40 develops gestational diabetes.
  • Placenta previa is when the placenta lies very low or covers the cervix, most often requiring a cesarean delivery. Rates are three times higher at age 40 than for those age 20 to 34.
  • Preeclampsia occurs in 5-10% of women over 40 and up to 35% over 50.
  • There is also a higher risk of premature births and medicalized births: 53% of women giving birth over 40 give birth by cesarean; 34% of births by women over 40 require forceps or the ventouse; and 11% of births by women 40 and over are premature.

Are there any positive aspects to having a child over 40?

Definitely yes! Otherwise, why would we do it?  Some women I asked said that they were much more patient and understanding than when they were younger. Others also felt that since they were financially more secure than in their 20’s and 30’s, they could better provide for their children, work shorter hours, travel, etc. For them the above-mentioned possible risks were worth it.

Having a baby is an exciting adventure whether you are 25 or 40. Childbirth and motherhood are universal experiences that are shared across the generations. My mom had her babies in her early 20’s and I had mine in my late 30’s but the experiences were very similar. We both wanted to have a family. We were both inexperienced and questioned what we were doing. And we both learned by having our children and loving them the best way we know how. So, if you are over 40 and your dream is to have children, by all means, get informed and go after your dream. Forty is the new twenty!


This article was adapted for The Feminist Breeder’s Resource Guide and published in October 2013.

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