Worth the wait

Helen Perks with her two children Max 7 and Eva 4
Helen Perks with her two children Max 7 and Eva 4

Helen Perks has heard all about the negatives that come with being an older mother. But she isn't buying it.

"Some people say you're going to be old and exhausted, but it works in the opposite way," said Ms Perks, a web designer who had her first child, Max, when she was 40, and her second child, Eva, when she was 43. "In fact, it encourages you. You think, ''Well, I'm going to be older when I have my kids, so I have to keep myself healthy'."

And remaining physically fit is just one benefit about having children in her 40s, she said.

"Personally, I'm a much more grounded person in my 40s than I was in my 30s, much more self-assured, self-confident. My thirties were a period of exploration and my 20s I just didn't know what the hell I was doing. In my 40s, yes, you feel, 'Yes, I can really impart a sort of level of calmness, a level of experience about the world that I couldn't have done in my 20s and 30s.' I'm [also] not sort of drawn in by stuff that I would've been in my 20s, like, 'Oh, my kids have to have this and go to that school'. I can make sort of more mature choices, maybe."

Perks is far from the only one. According to a major new study, the children of older mothers are getting a better start in life in a variety of ways.

The UK study, of over 78,000 children, said children born to women over 40 can benefit from improved health and language development up to the age of five. It also found increasing maternal age was associated with children having fewer hospital admissions and accidents, higher likelihood of having their immunisations by the time they were nine months old and fewer social and emotional difficulties.

Older mothers tend to be more educated, have higher incomes and be married — all factors associated with greater child wellbeing, said the study from University College London's Institute of Child Health which was published in the British Medical Journal.

"Basically once the risks around pregnancy and birth of older mothers have been negotiated, older mothers often have greater commitment to parenting, more settled home lives and/or careers, more stable relationships, and more experience generally which all gives them greater confidence" Dr Edward Melhuish, Professor of Human Development at Birkbeck, University of London and one of the authors of the study told Life & Style.

The results of the study were "noteworthy given the continuing increase in mean age of childbearing" in developed countries said the report and "relevant to concerns raised about older people seeking to use fertility treatments and possible risks posed to children delivered by older mothers."

In Australia too, the trend is for women to have children later in life. The latest report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 4 per cent of the almost 300,000 women who gave birth in 2009 were aged 40 and over, compared with 3.3 per cent of the 252,000 who delivered in 2004.

Dr Gino Pecoraro, spokesperson for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, agreed the study was noteworthy: "Intuitively it would make sense that older mothers tend to be more established, educated, mature and financially settled. This may well help with language development, potentially improved supervision of children needing to less hospitalisation to accidents."

The results of the study will be welcomed by older mothers who often face criticism over later child birth. Last year Perth obstetrician Dr Barry Walters caused controversy after he told the West Australian that older mothers were selfish and would burden their offspring with having to care for elderly parents.

"At least for a change the headlines are pointing out something good about being older as it is usually all so dismal," said Hannah Dahlen, associate professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney and national spokesperson for the Australian College of Midwives. Ms Dahlen gave birth to her daughter a few weeks before her 40th birthday.

"It is well known that this phenomena exists with children born to older mothers but most of the association is due to higher education and social advantage," she said. "The higher educated a mother in particular is the more financially stable she is and the more likely you will see children with better linguistic skills. These women are more likely to put off having a child until later in life due to career."

"Older women have more confidence in their bodies and in themselves and they are more likely to negotiate care they want for themselves and their baby. The added years and life experience can give us extra courage and resilience, which are vital for motherhood."

However, having children over a certain age is not without risk points out Pecoraro, "I think we need to be very careful using this research to say that women would be better off delaying having children for any perceived benefits to those children.

"I don't believe you can use this research to say that any perceived advantages outweigh the known disadvantages of later childbearing. In particular the known subfertility, increased medical risks of multi-party (twins and triplets with all their associated risks), placenta praevia, pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and the need for Caesarean section."

For older women contemplating pregnancy he advises first making an appointment to speak to an obstetrician. "I think being fully informed prior to embarking on pregnancy is always the best advice. At this doctor's visit, discuss things like what would you do if getting pregnant becomes difficult. Would you investigate fertility treatments and if so which ones including which ones you would not be interested in pursuing. What added surveillance and testing would the doctor recommend during pregnancy and what lifestyle measures could be undertaken to decrease potential risks such as ensuring normal weight before getting pregnant."

with Samantha Selinger-Morris

This story Worth the wait first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.