There’s no denying your odds of getting pregnant are far lower now than they were just a few years ago. After 45, experts say, it’s almost impossible to get pregnant using your own eggs.
At the same time, many 40-plus women do get pregnant, some using fertility treatments and some not. And there may be benefits to waiting to have children – for both you and your child.
Pregnancy at any age has advantages and disadvantages. We checked in with fertility specialists, financial consultants, relationship gurus, and 40-something moms to get a realistic picture of what it’s like to have a child in your 40s.
Advantages of waiting to have children
There are some definite benefits to becoming a parent when you’re older:
- You’re more experienced. Probably the greatest advantage of waiting to have children is that you’ve had time to grow and to see the world. You’re probably more secure financially and more comfortable in your career. It’s likely you and your partner have had the chance to get to know each other in a variety of circumstances, which can be a solid foundation for raising a family.
- You’re wiser. There’s some evidence that older mothers are, in general, better educated than young mothers and make wiser parenting decisions. They’re also more likely to breastfeed and, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, to make healthier nutritional choices for children, such as choosing whole fruits rather than sweets or sugary drinks.
- You’re more financially secure. Waiting to have children also has financial benefits. One U.S. study found that a woman’s earnings increase 9 percent for every year she postpones having a child.
A family and marriage therapist in Denver, Colorado, believes that the best time to have children is in your late 20s to early 30s, but she also sees pluses for couples who wait: “Parents in their 40s are often more focused on their children than younger parents are,” she says. “They’ve had time to travel and to have a broad range of experiences before having children. They have less financial pressure and more of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude toward partying and 60-hour work weeks.”
A mother of five and sales director at the San Francisco Marriott, says that at 41 she has less energy than she used to, but on the other hand is a wiser and more patient parent.
“In your 20s and your 30s, you tend to put too much pressure on yourself as a parent,” she says. “You think it will be a disaster if things don’t go just right. If you don’t have time to buy a present before a birthday party, for example, you stress out about it. As an older parent, I find things don’t bother me as much.”
On a practical level, “when you’re a single parent in your 20s and you’re late for work, it can cost you your job, which means you may not be able to pay the rent,” she says. “Now I have job and financial security. I’m a lot more relaxed.”
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Drawbacks of trying to get pregnant after 40
Postponing parenthood can cause serious problems:
- You may have a hard time getting pregnant. The biggest downside to putting off pregnancy until your 40s is significant: It’s harder to get pregnant the longer you wait. That’s because your egg supply decreases significantly as you age, and older eggs are more likely to have chromosomal problems, raising the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.
“There’s a steep drop in fertility in the 40s,” says Julia Johnson, an infertility specialist and chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “Your odds of getting pregnant at 41 are much better than they are at 43.”
A study in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility confirms Johnson’s point. Researchers found that 40-year-old women treated for infertility had a 25 percent chance of getting pregnant using their own eggs. But by age 43 that number dropped to 10 percent, and by 44 it had plummeted to 1.6 percent. Among women who did get pregnant, the miscarriage rate was 24 percent for 40-year-olds, 38 percent for 43-year-olds, and 54 percent for 44-year-olds.
Fertility expert James Goldfarb says that during his 30 years in the field, he has never seen a woman get pregnant with her own eggs after age 46. “It’s like buying a lottery ticket,” he says. “Yes, someone wins every once in a while, but you shouldn’t bank on it.”
Using donor eggs boosts the odds of getting pregnant considerably, and according to Goldfarb, that’s how most older celebrity moms are doing it – whether they admit it or not. “The fact that they don’t talk about it openly does a real disservice to other women,” he says. “We get at least one patient a month who comes in with the false hope that she can get pregnant using her own eggs.”
- You’re more likely to have a difficult pregnancy. Pregnancy complications are another concern. In your 40s you’re far more likely to develop problems like high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy as well as placental problems and birth complications.
- You’re at higher risk of a small or preterm baby. Women older than 40 are more likely to deliver a low-birth-weight or preterm baby. Stillbirth rates are also higher, and studies show that children born to older mothers may be at increased risk of type 1 diabetes and high blood pressure (though this association isn’t strong).
- Your partner’s sperm is older too. Don’t forget about your partner: Although men are physically capable of fathering children in their 60s and even their 70s, sperm quality deteriorates with age. Older men’s sperm has a higher rate of genetic defects than younger men’s sperm. In recent years, studies have suggested links between the father’s age and genetically related conditions such as Down syndrome, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder.
- You could strain your finances. One more thing to keep in mind: There are financial advantages to waiting to have children, but there may be liabilities as well. “If you wait, you’re likely to have to continue working to an older age, for one thing,” says Marnie Azner, a financial planner in Morris Plains, New Jersey.
“You’ll still have financial responsibilities at a time when many of your friends are beginning to retire,” Azner says. “If you haven’t been putting aside money for retirement up until now, it’s going to get even harder to do so after you have children. Other things become more expensive too, like life insurance and healthcare. Finally, if you have trouble getting pregnant, the cost of fertility treatments can really add up.”
Your chances of getting pregnant in your 40s
Almost half of women over 40 have fertility problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You have about a 5 percent chance of getting pregnant in any single ovulation cycle, according to leading fertility specialist Sherman Silber, director of the Infertility Center of St. Louis at St. Luke’s Hospital in Missouri and author of four best-selling fertility books, including How to Get Pregnant.
At 40, your chance of conceiving within a year is about 40 to 50 percent, compared with a woman in her mid 30s, who has a 75 percent chance. By age 43, a woman’s chance of pregnancy plummets to 1 or 2 percent.
Why the steep drop-off? Silber says it’s all about the eggs. When you reach puberty, your eggs number between 300,000 and 500,000, and after that you lose about 13,000 eggs a year. Over the years, this steady drop in egg supply leaves you with about 25,000 eggs by age 37 – the age that also coincides with a precipitous drop in fertility.
“By age 43, you’re really at the end of your egg supply,” Silber says, “and your chances of pregnancy are slim.”
Miscarriage rates begin to skyrocket in your 40s as well. At 40, the rate is 34 percent, and it rises to 53 percent by age 45. Your risk of pregnancy complications, such as high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, increases after 35 and continues to rise in your 40s.
The odds of genetic problems also jump as you get older: At 40, your chance of conceiving a child with Down syndrome is one in 100; at 45 it’s one in 30. Because the risk of genetic problems increase with age, experts routinely recommend that women in their 40s have detailed fetal screenings such as cell-free fetal DNA blood testing, advanced ultrasound, amniocentesis, or chorionic villus sampling.
Mothers over 40 also have a nearly 50 percent chance of having a c-section as a result of delivery complications. Incidents of low-birth-weight and stillborn babies are higher as well.
One very positive fact on your side: Given the range of new assisted reproductive technologies (ART) methods now available, there’s no better time in history to try to get pregnant as an older mother. Although in vitro fertilization (IVF) success rates fall significantly when women use their own eggs after age 35, the chance of success using donor eggs remains high with a pregnancy rate of about 50 percent for women through their late 40s.
For women in their 40s who use eggs from a woman in her 20s or 30s, the risk of miscarriage and chromosomal problems is consistent with the age of the egg donor.
How to get pregnant after 40
To give yourself the best chance for a normal pregnancy and a healthy baby, consider taking a few important steps before trying to conceive. Read these tips to help you prepare for pregnancy.
If you’re in your early 40s, your healthcare provider will likely refer you to a fertility specialist if you don’t get pregnant after having frequent (about two or three times a week) unprotected sex for up to six months.
Others advise seeing a specialist right away – especially if there are specific reasons you may have trouble getting pregnant, such as irregular or missed periods, ovulation difficulties, or problems with your partner’s sperm.
Most specialists start by doing tests to determine if there’s a problem with the way your ovaries function. Then they’ll check for problems with your fallopian tubes or your partner’s sperm.
If no such problems are found, then it’s likely your infertility is from age and declining egg quality. Your physician will advise you about your options depending on your individual circumstances.
For more on age and fertility, read our articles on getting pregnant in your 20s and 30s. Plus, check out the preconception and birth stories of six women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.