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Getting Pregnant After 35

The truth about age and women's fertility

By Heather Turgeon |

Now that I’m 35, my biological clock skips every time I read fertility statistics.

It’s a fact: a woman’s chances of getting pregnant go down with age, and our mid-30s is when the numbers take the most obvious turn. Actually, we start a slow fertility decline in our 20s, and it gains momentum into our 40s, when the outlook is the least rosy. Studies suggest that a healthy 30-year-old woman trying for a baby has about a 20 percent chance of getting pregnant each month. At 40, that number shrinks to 5 percent (though if she tries for an entire year, her chance is better than 40 percent.)

Add to it that the rate of miscarriage is higher in our 30s, as is the chance of having a baby with a genetic abnormality. A baby of a mom at age 25 has a 1 in 1,300 chance of having Downs syndrome (caused by faulty cell division that leaves baby with three instead of two copies of chromosome number 21). At 30, the chances are 1 in 1,000; at 35 its 1 in 400; and at 45, 1 in 35.

One of the reasons for the fertility decline is that, with time, the ovaries become less sensitive to the hormonal signals from our brain coaxing them to release an egg. Meanwhile, since we have a finite number of eggs, they naturally fall into shorter supply as the years go on. A baby girl is born with over a million eggs. By puberty around 300,000 of them are left, and from this bank, only around 300 will mature and release through ovulation. With age comes a higher likelihood of genetic hiccups as the eggs undergo early-stage cell divisions both before and after meeting sperm.

We certainly can’t ignore the numbers, and I’ve talked to fertility doctors who rue the phenomenon of late-blooming celebrity moms because they send the wrong message about fertility. The inevitable fact is that it’s harder and riskier the older we get.

But on the other hand, we have a habit of going off the rails a bit when it comes to health information. Part of the post-35 baby anxiety comes from our tendency to personalize health statistics; we see numbers and averages that were derived from data on millions of women and we take it as if it were a description of our own bodies.

The reality is that 35 is not a magic number. Your personal biology is unique, and it has an individual plan laid out for you. For good or ill, this could swing either way; perhaps your ovaries dropped in sensitivity in your late 20s, but they also may be programmed to keep right on track until your 40s.

In fact, one in five women in the U.S. has her first child after the age of 35 (not to mention the countless others who have a second or subsequent after their 35th birthday) and most are healthy moms with healthy babies. You probably know some of them yourself: friends or family members in early mid-life who took time for their careers or waited for the right partner sand then gave birth to their bundles of joy. So we need to remember that statistics are just that: a mathematical analysis of trends and relationships among variables. They’re meant to inform our choices, not to describe each of us perfectly.

Also, our health habits play into pregnancy, and, unlike our preset egg supplies, we actually have control over this part. One of the reasons fertility goes down and pregnancy risks go up with age is that, as we get older, we’re more likely to see the accumulated effects of bad practices like smoking or an unhealthy diet and also to have our overall health docked by conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes. When we take care of ourselves, we’re also staying just a bit ahead of the numbers.

So you can’t ignore the fact that, statistically speaking, fertility peaks in our 20s and slides after that. If you want the best numbers on your side, you start early. Indeed, if I let the numbers dictate, I would have been making babies around the time I was busy cramming for bio finals in my dorm room.

Instead, like many, I waited until my 30s. And if I have a second child, I will have dipped into a whole new fertility bracket. I’m not oblivious to the numbers, but I also know nothing cataclysmic happened to my ovaries on my 35th birthday. Life is complicated, and there are so many pieces to consider: career, finances, health, relationships. We have to acknowledge biological facts, but in the end, they are just one piece of a very intricate puzzle.

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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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24 thoughts on “Getting Pregnant After 35

  1. Anonymous says:

    well this helps me breathe easier – thank you for writing this!

  2. Nic says:

    Although statistics are aggregate, it is important to remember they represent trends, so yes there are women who may have not problem having a child at an older age, there are also more women who will have difficulty. And if you have never tried to get pregnant you don’t know which one you are. So women should be aware of the info.

  3. Suzanne says:

    I am one that waited as well, but (luckily) had no problem at 35. Like you, though, I am more concerned with no. 2, if we decide to go there, because I am now 38. Either way though, for many reasons, 35 was the right time for me. I would not have had a child earlier based on statistics alone – and P.S., I met my husband in college, so we had plenty of time! It is a tough topic though – we like to think we have all the time in the world, especially when you look at Hollywood , and the fact is that you may be just fine waiting…and then again, you may not.

  4. Sarah B says:

    Heather, you’re articles are always very informative. This has been an issue that I have been thinking about lately with a lot of regularity. I got pregnant the first time we tried when I was 32 and now if we have another, I will be over 35. Perhaps it will be just as easy, but like the first time, I have no idea.

  5. John Cave Osborne says:

    you know what i love about you Heather? you’re the perfect blend of scientific fact and human sensibility. this was fantastic. truly. my wife has always needed the help of hormone shots to conceived. it was for that reason we got a bit lazy and would up with our wonderful accident, child number 5 who will be born in July. i’d be lying if i told you we were cool as cucumbers over here. we’re not. but when i take time to think about the humanity that influences statistics, i realize that my beautiful and healthy wife cannot be defined by a chart. thank you so much for writing this.

  6. CSE says:

    As some who has always exercised, eaten healthy and taken care of myself but who has also struggled with infertility, I think it’s important not over-emphasize how much is in your “control”. Yes, healthy habits can help, but they aren’t a sure path to fertility. Trust me, infertility clinics are full of health-conscious women who thought they were in “control.”

  7. Ariel says:

    My husband and I decided not to try for any more children after I turned 35 because of all the statistics. I had our first child when I was 30 – easy getting pregnant and healthy baby. I’m pregnant again at 33 and a blood test showed a risk for down syndrome at 1 in 35, needless to say, exactly what I was hoping to avoid by conceiving pre-35. Luckily an amnio showed it’s not likely at all but it definitely hit home with me that you can only control these things so much. All I can do now is be as healthy as possible and ready to love my baby no matter what.

  8. Common Sense Mom says:

    Had my first at 35 and second at 38. I did need some fertility assistance in that I had some hormonal dysfunction that was probably present for a decade before we even started trying. Saw a great fertility specialist who got things worked out with meds.

  9. Common Sense Mom says:

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  10. Alex says:

    While getting pregnant after 35 is certainly within the reach of most women, lots of couples want more than one child. So if you don’t start until after 35 for the first, by the time you try for No. 2, you could be battling infertility. That’s what happened to me. We had no trouble conceiving our son when I was 36, but by the time we tried for another, we were out of luck and had to pursue an aggressive course of fertility treatments and experienced a horrible loss in the second trimester. If I had known then what I know now, we would have started a lot sooner.

  11. Susan says:

    I’m will Alex on this. DD was conceived when I was 36 with no trouble. We tried, but not aggressively enough, for No. 2 when I was 38. Now 41 and about to cash in my chips. Seeking aggressive assistance between 38 and 40 is imperative.

  12. Nancy Roxanne Hardin Cowley says:

    I had my first 4 children in my early twenties (well my first was actually at 18) so imagine my surprise when I found myself pregnant at 42 with my 5th! …I agree that “your personal biology is unique” and I realize how blessed I am to be raising another healthy child 25 years after the birth of my first and 16 years after the youngest. Never say never!

  13. Korinthia Klein says:

    I had my kids at 32, 34 and 37, with two miscarriages between babies two and three. I don’t know how much my age factored into the problems staying pregnant the third time, but I’m glad we kept trying.

    As with all statistical odds, the reality for an individual is either 0 or 100%. I wish you the best and hope you end up with the family that is right for you.

  14. Angela Taaffe says:

    I had my first child at 41 and my second at 43, the first was a surprise and the second we tried all of two months. Both boys are healthy and beautiful. I think each woman is different, I happily wasn’t in line with any of the statistics.

  15. oldmama says:

    On a PBS Masterpiece Theater story last night (“Downton Abbey”) a doctor told a husband that sometimes during the latter part of a woman’s childbearing age, when a woman’s cyle becomes irregular, she can have a surge of fertility. I don’t know if that is really true, but it sure happened to me. I gave birth to my first and only child at the age of 45. It was a perfectly healthy pregnancy (though I was anxious just about all of the time because of the doctor’s initial fear of complications). I wasn’t trying to get pregnant and wasn’t living an overly healthy life, but was very happy to find out I was pregnant. I never tried to become pregnant because I didn’t have the right man in my life, but as luck would have it, I did have a pretty amazing one. I feel very lucky. Right now I’m the oldest mother I know who naturally got pregnant and gave birth, but I bet there are others older. Without a doubt, if I could do it again, I would.

  16. Sticker J says:

    I haven’t even read the article yet, but there’s a horrible apostrophe error in the subtitle.

  17. Barbara Martens-Connolly says:

    I am now 39 years old and pregnant with my fifth child….I hate to say this but BS on this article …I was already in my mid 30s when I conceived my 2nd, 3rd,4th and now 5th…I dont see my fertility went down..as a matter of fact I couldnt conceive after my first in my early twenties…thirties for me are my most fertile..

  18. Lisa says:

    I say just go with it, too many woman put an age on when they want to have children. If I had had children when I was younger I would have ended up being a single parent and honestly the person I was with for so many years would not have been a good parent. I knew, just as most of us know that he wasn’t the person I would grow old with. I had my children at 40 and 42, both great pregnancies and both healthy children. I am so happy that I have them. From a young age I have always wanted to be a Mother. Yes it did make me sad that I hadn’t found the right man. I was lucky to find love later in life and really lucky to get pregnant so easily. I think we would have adopted if we couldn’t have had our own, being parents was high on our list.

  19. Travis Stephanie Fehler says:

    Hm…. I am a little experiment as we don’t use contraception. I do see a pattern of declining fertility, and i’m a healthy non smoker, drinker, drugs, healthybfoods and vitamins kinda mom. Babies at 22,25,27,29,32,(miscarriage at 34), baby at 35, and then, … Nothing. My “baby is 3years,4mo old and no sign of pregnancy. I’m 38 now and i’m glad i didn’t end with a miscarriage, and i’m happy to have the gorgeous full house i do, but it sure seemed sudden to me to basically just stop ovulating.

  20. cat42970 says:

    I became a mother at 37 and 39 and we are considering a 3rd. We consider ourselves lucky. Despite the great and reassuring stories here, most of my friends are not so lucky. My advise to anyone that want to have kids, try as soon as possible. Even if you are in your 20s. Some infertility issues can be addressed quite easily without age being such a factor.

  21. Sandy Glines says:

    I had my first child at 22 and I’ll be 41 when I have my second. The large gap is due to having had my tubes tied at the age of 28. I had to get a tubal reversal….and BOOM, 8 months later I’ve got my second baby on the way! I’m 26 weeks along and feel great!

  22. Melissa M says:

    I’m 38 and can’t get pregnant. I have PCOS. I have gone through fertility treatments for 8 years and nothing has worked. The numbers that you posted remind me that it’s getting harder and almost to late to have children.

  23. kelley says:

    Im 35 and quit taking my bc pills in november. We only tried 1x early dec and 6 weeks later I was pregnant. I didnt expect it to happen that fast!

  24. ali says:

    I’ll be 36 in one month. We’ve been trying to conceive for 10 months (though my cycles are so short, I’ve had 12 possible ovulation cycles so far….)
    Due to my age, I’m contemplating assisted insemination (IUI). Getting discouraged with each passing month.

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