The steady increase in women having babies later in life is undeniable.
First-time mothers are more likely to be 35 or older than their counterparts from two decades ago, according to the Pew Research Center. While the number of first-time moms between ages 20 and 24 falls, the number of births to women in their 30s and 40s keeps growing. In fact, in the past 20 years, the number of women having children in their mid-40s and beyond has tripled.
What’s Behind the Shift to “Older” Motherhood
Increasingly women delay marriage to seek more education or establish themselves in jobs and careers. The economic downturn of the last decade has also compelled would-be parents to wait until they have the resources necessary for childrearing.
Medical professionals aren’t necessary insisting that it’s better to have children when a woman is older, but many women feel they have some flexibility in deciding when to have children. Advances in fertility technology, such as in vitro fertilization, egg freezing, frozen embryos, donor eggs and surrogates, also make it more feasible for women to wait to become mothers until the time is right for them.
In addition, recent wide-ranging studies have found significant long-term benefits in waiting to have babies. These benefits counterbalance some worries – and criticisms women may face – about being an older mother and the effects it may have on children.
Longevity for Women Who Wait
Older parents may hear that they won’t be around to see their child do this or that due to the parent’s “advanced” age. To the contrary, having children at an older age may spell a longer life.
A study in the journal Menopause examined older mothers’ life expectancy and found that women who had their last child after the age of 33 are more likely to live to 95. In fact, researchers reported that these women had twice the chance of living to 95 or older than those who had their last child before their 30th birthday. The news for women having babies after 40 is equally promising.
A report looking at maternal age at childbirth and longevity published in the American Journal of Public Health echoed those findings. Taking the data from approximately 20,000 women in the United States for 21 years, the analysis concluded that having your first baby even at age 25 or after increased the likelihood of living into your 90s.
Boosted Brainpower for Older Mothers
It’s also plausible that later pregnancies protect against cognitive decline. Researchers at the University of Southern California found that women have “better brainpower after menopause” if they had their last baby after age 35. The researchers looked at the pregnancy history of a diverse group of 830 women ages 41 to 92. Their research, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, provides strong evidence of “a positive association between later age at last pregnancy and late-life cognition.”
The study also found that brain function may be improved and the chance of memory loss decreased if women used hormonal contraceptives for more than 10 years or began menstruating before age 13. The theory behind these findings is that hormones impact long-term brain function.
Increased Income Over Time
There’s a measurable link between the age you have your first child and income gains and losses. Women who start their families when they are older are likely to increase their earning potential.
“Children do not kill careers, but the earlier children arrive, the more their mother’s income suffers. There is a clear incentive for delaying,” says Raul Santaeulalia-Llopis, co-author of a study looking at the relationship between a mother’s age at first birth and her lifetime earnings; the research was published in the open access journal PLOS One.
Santaeulalia-Llopis found that the age at which women have a first child has an impact on their lifelong wages for both those with and without college degrees. The study examined birth statistics from a Danish database and concluded that women whose age at first birth was under 25 had the greatest lifetime labor income loss; there were lifetime financial gains for women who were 31 years and older when their first child was born.
Educational and Emotional Support for Children
Older parents who are less stressed about income or job security tend to be more patient and can spend more time with their children.
Parents who have more secondary education can also offer more specific stimulation to their children, which can be helpful for development. An investigation of 8- to 12-year-olds explored how specific parenting beliefs and behaviors – such as reading, constructive play and emotional support – affected child development. The research published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that parent education and income positively affect child achievement.
Likely Positive Long-term Outcomes for Children
Taking increased earning potential into consideration, another study concluded that waiting to have children – even until age 40 and older – is associated with long-term benefits for children. The study published last year in the journal Population and Development Review revealed several pluses: Children born to older mothers stayed in the educational system longer, did better on standardized tests, and were more likely to go to college than their peers who were born to younger mothers. The researchers also found that because older mothers have likely stayed in school longer, they use more extensive vocabularies when interacting with their young children. The study notes that having this kind of parental role model often translates to how children communicate themselves and how they perform in school.
Interestingly, when the researchers analyzed data from siblings who essentially had a similar home environment, they noted that the sibling born when the mother was older stayed in the educational system longer, was more likely to attend college and performed better on standardized tests than the siblings born when their mother was younger.
Given the research, if you decide to wait before becoming a mother – or to delay growing your family – these perks remove some of the time pressure you may feel. If nothing else, the benefits of later motherhood give you ammunition with which to counter your critics.