Older Women Giving Birth

Elderly Prima Gravidas is the medical term that literally translates to “old first-time mum”. However, it is a term that is quickly dating as more women are choosing to delay motherhood until later in life.

“Elderly Prima Gravidas” is the medical term given to a woman over 30 or 35 (depending on the doctor) giving birth for the first time. It literally translates to “old first-time mum”. However, it is a term that is quickly dating as more women are choosing to delay motherhood until later in life.

In the last quarter of a century, the median age of first time mothers has increased from 24 years in 1975 to 29 in 2000. Australia Bureau of
Statistics (ABS) projections assume the median age of mothers will reach 31.2 years by 2008.

So why are so many women choosing to have children later in life? There are thought to be many influencing factors. Many women may be:

  • Choosing to spend more time developing relationships before settling down with a partner in their mid 30s
  • Choosing to achieve financial independence and security before having their first child
  • Enjoying the freedom that a family life may potentially compromise choosing instead to travel, study or establish a successful career.

It’s a universal conundrum that for mothers in their 20s, the best years for having children from a medical perspective coincides with the best years for establishing a career.

There is also the thought that the widespread availability and long-term use of contraception has led to both less unplanned pregnancies and obligatory marriages. Also to be considered is the increasing number of pregnancies that are voluntarily terminated.

Many women may choose to delay parenthood in the belief that emotional and psychological maturity better equips them for dealing with the roles that parenthood presents. Some women find it necessary to live a varied and fulfilling life in both a personal and professional sense before embarking on motherhood. Establishing a sense of self is as important to many in today’s progressive society.

The April edition of Time magazine this year ran a cover photograph of a baby on top of an overflowing “pending” filing tray titled: “Babies vs Career – Which should come first for women who want both? The harsh facts about fertility”. The article sought to highlight the potential medical obstacles women may face as older women wishing to start a family.

Medical Fraternity

In the medical fraternity it is broadly acknowledged that female fecundity (the ability to conceive) decreases with age. Delaying pregnancy and parenthood raises the likelihood of complications such as:

Difficulty Conceiving

Approximately one in seven couples experience infertility problems if the female is aged between 30-34 years, one in five when she is aged between 35-40 years and one in four for women aged between 40-44 years.

Chromosomal Anomalies

Chromosomal anomalies, including Down’s Syndrome. For a woman aged 20, the risk of Down’s Syndrome is one in 1000; by the age of 30 this increases to one in 600; at the age of 35, it is one in 225 and by 40 years, it is one in 62.

Aging Oocytes

Research indicates that age influences the quality of a woman’s oocytes (eggs) raising the risk of chromosomal anomalies and consequently the incidence of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Pregnancy Complications

The incidence of high blood pressure and gestational diabetes increases with age.

Foetal Deformities

The increasing incidence of foetal problems caused by nutritional deficiencies, such as folic acid, may lead to foetal deformities including neural tube defects and spina bifida.

Fertility Treatment

The effectiveness of fertility treatment, including IVF, is reduced. In 1997 about 9% of mothers assisted by artificial conception were aged 40 years and over, comprising 2% of all mothers.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

The incidence of pelvic inflammatory disease is increased.

Most health professionals, however, agree that with careful preconception and pregnancy planning, monitoring these problems can be managed, and to some extent, reduced.

Youth is certainly no guarantee of a clean bill of health. There’s genetics to consider, dietary choices, stress levels, along with the fact that many young women today consume far greater quantities of alcohol, recreational drugs and alcohol than women 20 year’s their senior. All these factors will have a bearing on fertility, pregnancy and labour.

Celebrated author and medical professional Christiane Northrup believes that whether or not a woman in her 30s is more at risk of fertility problems or a difficult pregnancy must be completely individualised.
A certified obstetrician and gynaecologist with vast experience in women’s health, Northrup writes in her book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom:
“I’d much rather take care of a 40-year-old in excellent health who had planned her pregnancy than a 25 year old who smokes two packs and quaffs a gallon of Diet Coke per day. Too often the medical profession “hexes” women who become pregnant in their 30s and 40s by lumping them into a statistically high-risk categories that are not necessarily applicable.”
She also says that age is not an absolute measure of the intensity or duration of labour.
“Chronological age (age in years) and biological age (age of one’s tissues) aren’t necessarily related,” writes Northrup.

Emotional Ramifications

Having a child later in life will always stir the emotional balance for a couple. When two people have spent a long time establishing themselves as individuals and as a couple living a full life, it can be an unexpectedly difficult transition to life as a family. The sudden responsibility of being parents can threaten a relationship and in some cases, it may not survive.
But one can always argue that a baby will alter any relationship, whatever age the couples and however long they have been together. As Nora Ephron once said:
“A baby is a hand grenade thrown into a marriage”.

Bypassing Parenthood

If current rates of birth continue in Australia, 24% of all Australian women will remain childless at the end of their reproductive lives.
In the United States, recent census data indicates that childlessness has doubled in the past 20 years so that one in five women between 40 and 44 are childless.

Increasing median age of fathers

Meanwhile, the median age of fathers in Australia has increased from 29.4 years in 1980 to 32.3 years in 2000, according to the ABS. The growing proportion of fathers aged 40 years and over has contributed to this rise.
In 1980, 5% of fathers were aged 40 years and over – this figure has increased to 11% in 2000.
While it is thought that some fathers may have deliberately delayed fatherhood, it is also a possibility that many of these fathers could be starting a second family with a different partner.

Motherhood on Ice

In the United Kingdom, a 36-year-old woman has achieved pregnancy using her own previously frozen eggs and her husbands sperm, and gone on to give birth to a baby girl. Realistically this means women can choose to freeze their eggs and delay motherhood.