I recently wrote an article for Elite Daily on my fears of not being able to have children within the terms that I would like to have them—you know, with someone I love, that I’m married to, before age 35. To my surprise, it became my most-read article I’ve ever written, and generated a lot of response.
You know how they say, “Don’t read the comments?” Sorry, I am too obsessive—I read them all, and I was horrified. Not by the people suggesting I need therapy—I’m used to those—but by the lack of basic knowledge of the baby-having process (#AbstinenceEducationFTW). Don’t you people read things on the Internet? (Oh right, that might be the problem…)
So, while having babies may be far off for many of you, let’s talk about some of the actual facts of fertility and popping one out.
If a woman releases one egg every month while she has her period (approximately 40 years), how many eggs will she release during ovulation in her lifetime? If your answer is around 480, congratulations on being able to do basic math. While women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, that number is approximately 2 million eggs at birth and about 300,000 at puberty. So “running out of eggs” isn’t really the problem.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The body likes to have options, so a couple dozen eggs are actually matured each month, even though only one alpha-egg is released, and others just kind of die. A woman is considered to be in menopause when she has 1,000 or fewer eggs. So, even up to the time that she doesn’t have periods anymore, a woman can still have eggs. However, it’s not like cells get healthier as they age, so the quality of those eggs come into play as she gets older (which is where things like the egg donation process can come into play).
When I was in school, I was taught that 35 was the magic age because after that the risk of having a baby with Down Syndrome or other chromosomal abnormalities rises exponentially. This is true—but that chance is still only 1 in 350. According to a very reassuring article in The Atlantic:
[A]t early fetal testing (known as chorionic villus sampling), 99 percent of fetuses are chromosomally normal among 35-year-old pregnant women, and 97 percent among 40-year-olds.
The author also notes that many references to older women’s fertility use data from the 1700’s, whereas studies of modern women have found 82% of 35-39 year old women were able to conceive within a year of having sex twice a week, compared to 86% of 27-34 year olds.
On the other hand, fertility problems hit harder once you’re older. Of women who used IVF (which only accounts for 1% of births), women younger than 35 had a 42% success rate on their first cycle, compared to 27% of 35-40 and 12% over 40. So if you do require assistance to conceive, it will be harder.
Of course, getting pregnant isn’t the end of it, given your body’s slow descent into decay. Unfortunately, at 35 women have a higher miscarriage rate: 18%, twice what it is at age 20 (miscarriages are likely due to a pregnancy not developing correctly). They also have higher rate of C-sections and run the risk of developing complications like diabetes during pregnancy. However, the longer a woman waits to have children, the higher her lifetime career earnings, and children of older parents have more stable lives and do better in school (study, article).
Hey dudes—you’re not immune from this. In contrast to women, men are born with 0 sperm but begin to produce it after puberty, with no end date. However, the sperm you produce as you age (particularly after 35) is more likely to contain genetic mutations and have low motility. In general, the older the man, the longer it will likely take to conceive. Older fathers have also been linked to a variety of disorders: the chances of having a child with schizophrenia, autism, dwarfism, and others increase with age (some claims, such as higher rates of ADHD, use data that may not be definitive). The chances of having a child with a mutation is still small, and in the case of schizophrenia the magic age seems to be 50, but a 36 year-old man is twice as likely as a 20 year-old to pass on de novo mutations.
When it comes down to it though, there are factors other than the physiological to incorporate into deciding when to have children. My parents are 63 and almost-65, so if I want my kids to be able to have a meaningful relationship with them and realize how wonderful they are (as well as be properly grandparent-spoiled) I’d better hop to it. I am definitely glad that I have not had children yet—I’m thankful that I got to live in Italy, go to wild beach parties, and generally do stupid things because I didn’t have to be (too) responsible. Hell, I didn’t even LIKE children until a couple of years ago. The timing is going to be different for every person (IF they even want to have kids!), but if you are like me and are panicking that you only have so much time left, hopefully the research here will help ease your anxiety.
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