Who knows what balance of outlook and hormones makes women think that having a baby over the age of 40 is a good idea - but Sophie Morris is not alone
The last thing I expected to be feeling as I approach my mid-forties is broody. For years, like many of my friends, I’ve been happily “one child and done”. I’ve celebrated the passing of countless childrearing horizons, from going nappy-free to buggy-free to being able to leave the house without a survivalist’s kit of wipes and toys and snacks and clean pants. I’ve looked forward to the free time, nights out and unbroken sleep that older children permit. And yet.
Who knows what specific balance of outlook and hormones makes us think that having a baby over the age of 40 is a good idea, but I’m far from alone in dreaming of gurgling newborns and chunky toddlers as my eggs prepare to clock off for good.
Take Gordon Ramsay, for example. The superstar chef had four children and the youngest, Tilly, was nearly 18 when his wife Tana gave birth to a fifth baby, Oscar, just four years ago. At the time, Ramsay was 52 and Tana was 44. Not only that, the chef recently revealed to The Dish podcast that his wife is after a sixth child, at 49.
Naomi Campbell had her first child at 50 and announced her second in June, at 53, though it isn’t clear if she carried the babies herself. Hilary Swank had twins earlier this year, at the age of 48.
The average age of mothers in the UK increased from 27.7 in 1991 to 30.9 in 2021, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. The report also revealed how many more women are having babies, possibly for the first time, over the ages of 40 and 45.
There were twice as many births to women over the age of 40 as there were to teenage mothers, while the number of women over 40 giving birth doubled in the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, from 8.8 live births per 1,000 women to 15.9.
What’s striking about this is that so many women are giving birth as they become menopausal. We know that many factors contribute to having children in mid-life, including waiting to meet the right co-parent, feeling financially stable, and believing oneself ready for a career break and the life changes parenthood demands, along with advances in fertility treatment.
But what about the women aged 40-plus who are falling pregnant naturally? Can we conceive at the same time as experiencing the symptoms of perimenopause? Do fluctuating hormones mean there are a lot of surprise “meno babies” during perimenopause, the years leading up to the end of a woman’s fertile life? I asked GP and menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson.
“With the menopause so much is fixated on periods [ending] when it’s more about our hormones and what they do in our body. We shouldn’t be relying on our periods to denote fertility,” she says. ” While it is often said that menopause is when you have gone 12 months without a period, Newson (inset) says the underfifties should wait two years before giving up contraception if they do not want a surprise pregnancy, and that periods might stop for many reasons, from an eating disorder or medical treatment, before the ovaries start working again.
Is there any truth in the idea women can experience surges of fertility during perimenopause?
“There’s no good evidence,” says Newson. “But no one does proper research into menopause. As people start hormone replacement therapy (HRT), they often become more fertile, and we’ve had a few pregnancies with clients. The first time it happened our admin staff were really worried, but the patient was delighted”.
What is more, HRT could even enhance fertility, because it is supplying consistent hormones where a woman might have sought treatment because her hormone levels are unstable.
“We see a lot of perimenopausal women who are trying to conceive,” says Newson (inset left). “Their ovaries have been producing hormones but perhaps not enough to support a pregnancy, and we give them adequate hormones.
“I think it’s important to know, because women avoid coming for treatment thinking it can worsen their fertility, though it can in fact improve it.”
The women 1,000 who over the from 8.8 per 1,000
Liz Earle, a beauty entrepreneur and author of The Good Menopause Guide, has spoken about her surprise pregnancyat 47, and how she juggled menopausal symptoms such as poor sleep with a newborn, supported by HRT.
Why do many women decide to have babies as they reach the end of their fertile lives? Having your first baby at that age because you’ve either been trying for years, or delayed trying, is one thing, but I wonder if perimenopausal women get broody as a sort of “lastchance” reaction to their final eggs, and if our feelings can be connected to anything physiological. “Psychologically, we might get to this point in our lives and find we have empty-nest syndrome and want to hold on to our fertile years,” suggests Cheryl Lythgoe, an advanced nurse practitioner at Benenden Health.
“There is a psychological loss of identity, but physiologically your hormones are going in surges. It’s like puberty in reverse. The body is desperately trying to work out what it should be doing at this stage in life.
“We will get oestrogen surges that bring the emotions that make us feel like becoming pregnant, but physiologically our bodies aren’t in the same state [to carry a baby].”
All of the experts I talk to point out that although more women are having babiesat an older age, it is far harder to conceive as you age. Lythgoe tells me that the pregnancy rate for women aged 45 is between 10 and 20 per cent, but at 50 that drops to five. And there are increased risks for both mother and baby.
Dr Shirin Lakhani, an aesthetic physician, agrees, saying: “We’re living longer and we’re staying healthier longer, and with all the options available such as IVF, freezing eggs and freezing embryos, we will see more mothers later in life. But falling pregnant naturallyis not going to become the norm.”
The principal risks for later pregnancies include miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, with an increased chance of chromosomal abnormalities.
number of in every give birth of 40 - up live births in 2021
While many younger women say that cost is putting them off having children - more than half reach 30 without having a baby - very few have the resources that allow people like Campbell and Swank to care for new babies while their own bodies are older and exhausted.
Maybe my own broodiness could be cured by summoning memories of the piles of poo-mageddonsprayed laundry and hours-long screaming sessions