You could be in your early 20s, late 30s or mid 40s, when you decide that you are finally ready to be pregnant. You might also be wondering what is the right age to have a baby. The decision depends entirely on where you are in your life — what your journey has been and where you are headed. Have you met your partner early in life? Do you want a large family? However, age is not just a number when it comes to getting pregnant. While each pregnancy is unique, many emotional and physical aspects of it do depend on your age.
With increased age come higher health risks for you and your baby. However, as a very young mum, you may not have had enough life experience to deal with the emotional, financial, and psychological challenges that can accompany pregnancy and childbirth. In this article we help you identify the benefits and risks associated with being pregnant in your 20s, 30s and 40s. We spoke with Dr. Ann Tan, Fertility Specialist from Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, to find out more about how you can plan for your healthiest pregnancy in each of these decades.
IN YOUR 20S YOUR BODY IS READY FOR A BABY, BUT ARE YOU?
Your body is best primed for pregnancy in your early 20s. Your menstrual cycles have evened out and your eggs (yes, you are born with your lifetime supply of them!) are fresh and healthy, making conception much easier. Also the high quality of eggs also means that there is a lower risk of birth defects. This is also the age at which your body is best able to handle the stresses of pregnancy on the bones, back and muscles. Your youth also means that you are less likely to develop pregnancy related complications. So speaking strictly in physical terms, your 20s is the best time to get pregnant.
However, just because your body is ready, it does not mean that you are. You are likely to have embarked on your career or be newly married while you are in your early 20s. You may, at this stage, not be ready for the life altering changes that come with being parent. However, just a few years can make a difference. If you are in your late 20s, you may feel more financially secure and more settled in your relationship and career and ready to take the decision to be pregnant.
IN YOUR 30S YOU BECAME MORE MATURED, BUT SO HAVE YOUR EGGS
By your early 30s you may feel more emotionally, psychologically and financially ready to start a family, as compared to when you were in your 20s. In fact, in Singapore, the average age of the mother at first birth is just shy of 30. However, while you are gaining maturity so are your eggs, making conception harder. If you conceive in your early 30s, you will find that the physical stresses of it are not all that much different from when you were in your late 20s. You will find that your energy and fitness levels are not all that different from a woman who is pregnant in her late 20s, especially if you’ve led a healthy lifestyle. But once you hit your mid 30s, things change.
The age of 35 is when your pregnancy officially becomes a “high risk” one. Not only do you become more prone to pregnancy-specific conditions such as gestational diabetes, but the chances of your baby being born with chromosomal abnormality such as Down syndrome increase exponentially every year after 35. To mitigate this, you need to consult closely and regularly with your doctor on the tests you can take to put your mind at ease. The basic screening tests to rule it out include a triple test or a nuchal translucency test.
If a screening test indicates a high risk of Down syndrome, diagnostic tests may be performed to determine whether the baby actually has Down syndrome. These include amniocentesis, where a sample of the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby is withdrawn through a needle inserted into the mother’s womb or a Chorionic Villous Sampling (CVS) which involves taking a sample of cells from the mother’s placenta to analyse the baby’s genes. You also need to speak to your doctor about how to stay in the best health during your pregnancy.
IN YOUR 40S, IT ONLY GETS HARDER
From a medical point of view, this is the toughest and the riskiest decade to try for a baby. By now you are left with lower quality eggs, making conception much slower. But you can definitely see a doctor for fertility treatments to help with this. In your 40s, the probability of you having a miscarriage, developing a pregnancy related health complication and your baby being born with a chromosomal abnormality is very high. Interestingly, when this is perhaps the hardest age frame for you to get pregnant, it is also the time when you’re most likely to carry multiples. This itself is considered a high-risk pregnancy.
You will need to see your doctor far more frequently, to ensure that your placenta and baby are growing well, and for your overall maternal well-being. On the plus side, if you pass all these hurdles, you are perhaps far more prepared for motherhood. You probably have much greater financial stability, have fulfilled many of your personal and professional ambitions, freeing you up to focus on being a mother.
IRRESPECTIVE OF AGE, GET A HEALTH ASSESSMENT DONE PRIOR TO CONCEPTION
While there is no right age to have a baby, it is ideal that a couple should ensure that both partners are in optimal health before planning a pregnancy. This will ascertain that their eggs and sperms are doing well before getting pregnant. A visit to a fertility specialist will give you the option to do as basic or as extensive a test as is required. The choice of test will depend on the family history of the couple as well as their own medical history.
THE BASIC TESTS CONDUCTED PRIOR TO CONCEPTION ASSESS IF THE POTENTIAL PARENTS:
- Have any medical or genetic disorders
- Carry any sexually transmitted diseases
- Have abnormal immunological diseases
- Detect iron or vitamin D deficiencies
In addition, there is another test which can reflect the status of a woman’s egg bank. The test measures the level of Anti Mullerian Hormone (AMH) — the higher the level of the hormone the more eggs she would have and thus a potentially higher chance of pregnancy. However, an excessively high level may indicate a risk of polycystic ovarian syndrome. An AMH reading is particularly useful for mature couples or for women who have had surgery on their ovaries e.g. cyst removal.
HEALTH PROBLEMS ALL WOMEN SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR REGARDLESS OF THE RIGHT AGE TO HAVE A BABY
While women over 35 years and especially those in their 40s are more likely to have her pregnancy complicated by medical disorders, there are some problems that are just as likely to affect younger women as well as older women. These include:
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a condition suffered by women who have irregular menstrual cycles and even when they do, many of the cycles do not lead to ovulation.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease, which often leads to tubal damage or blockage.
- Pelvic endometriosis, which causes damage to the ovaries and may decrease the quality of the eggs produced, as well as hinder the movement of the sperms to the ovaries due to pelvic adhesions.
- Fibroids, which may distort the uterine cavity.
- Endometrial polyps, which hinder implantation.
RIGHT AGE TO HAVE A BABY: BE MINDFUL OF THE FATHER’S AGE TOO
It is not just the mother’s age that one has to look at. The father’s age is a factor too. As the father ages, the quality of his semen is liable to decline, both from lowered testosterone levels and from ageing. If the father-to-be has been taking medications to deal with existing medical conditions, it can also impact the quality of the semen. The increased age of the father has been linked to an increased risk of autism in their children.
A HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE CAN MAKE PREGNANCY SMOOTHER
No matter what age you decide to get pregnant at, remember to eat well, exercise regularly and reduce the levels of stress in your life. If your body and mind are in good health, it can make pregnancy much easier for you. And remember, regardless of the right age to have a baby, try for a baby when both you and your partner are in good health; illnesses can negatively impact the quality of both, the eggs and the sperms.