Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me if I want to have another kid. Although I’m 33, and have a beautiful 7-year-old son, folks never quite cease to ask if I’d like to add to my brood.
At the moment, the answer is solidly no. And while I used rule it out all together, citing my age as the main reason, I’m not so sure anymore.
Recently Kim Fields (of Living Single and Facts of Life fame) announced she was pregnant her second child. The 44-year-old actress said she and her husband tried to conceive for a couple of years (they have a six-year-old son), before finding out that she was pregnant.
Fields’ story is not quite unique, but it further highlights a growing trend of women waiting longer to have children.
But should we?
In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Jean M. Twenge argues that everything women have been told about our ability to have children after 35 is wrong. While women have been told that our fertility decreases drastically after age 35, Twenge poured through the data and found that is not quite true.
As a psychology researcher who’d published articles in scientific journals, some covered in the popular press, I knew that many scientific findings differ significantly from what the public hears about them. Soon after my second wedding, I decided to go to the source: I scoured medical-research databases, and quickly learned that the statistics on women’s age and fertility—used by many to make decisions about relationships, careers, and when to have children—were one of the more spectacular examples of the mainstream media’s failure to correctly report on and interpret scientific research.
The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.
In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not. When I mention this to friends and associates, by far the most common reaction is: “No … No way. Really?”
Twenge, who had three children after 35 (and one after 40), found that “baby panic”—the collective freak out about the difficulty of having a baby in our 30s—was spurred on by statistics based on women undergoing fertility treatments despite only a small number of women needing such procedures to conceive.
One possibility is the “availability heuristic”: when making judgments, people rely on what’s right in front of them. Fertility doctors see the effects of age on the success rate of fertility treatment every day. That’s particularly true for in vitro fertilization, which relies on the extraction of a large number of eggs from the ovaries, because some eggs are lost at every stage of the difficult process. Younger women’s ovaries respond better to the drugs used to extract the eggs, and younger women’s eggs are more likely to be chromosomally normal. As a result, younger women’s IVF success rates are indeed much higher—about 42 percent of those younger than 35 will give birth to a live baby after one IVF cycle, versus 27 percent for those ages 35 to 40, and just 12 percent for those ages 41 to 42. Many studies have examined how IVF success declines with age, and these statistics are cited in many research articles and online forums.
Yet only about 1 percent of babies born each year in the U.S. are a result of IVF, and most of their mothers used the technique not because of their age, but to overcome blocked fallopian tubes, male infertility, or other issues: about 80 percent of IVF patients are 40 or younger. And the IVF statistics tell us very little about natural conception, which requires just one egg rather than a dozen or more, among other differences.
The data, imperfect as they are, suggest two conclusions. No. 1: fertility declines with age. No. 2, and much more relevant: the vast majority of women in their late 30s will be able to get pregnant on their own. The bottom line for women, in my view, is: plan to have your last child by the time you turn 40. Beyond that, you’re rolling the dice, though they may still come up in your favor. “Fertility is relatively stable until the late 30s, with the inflection point somewhere around 38 or 39,” Steiner told me. “Women in their early 30s can think about years, but in their late 30s, they need to be thinking about months.” That’s also why many experts advise that women older than 35 should see a fertility specialist if they haven’t conceived after six months—particularly if it’s been six months of sex during fertile times.
Choosing to have a baby—at any age—is an extremely personal choice. I posed this question on my Facebook page, and the responses were quite interesting.
While many say they’d consider (or even welcome) having a baby in their 40s, others ruled it out completely. One woman said she just wouldn’t have the energy for an infant after 40, although she conceded that increased financial stability makes being a more mature parent seem like a reasonable choice.