The Perfect Age to Have Kids? Depends Whom (and When) You Ask


Getty ImagesI just turned 38. Am I too old to contemplate one more pregnancy before I hang up my fallopian tubes?

After all of the drama I've endured with my last five pregnancies (and three births), I feel like I've gotten pregnancy down to an art. It seems unfair that I might be considered too old or too risky to bear another child.

So I wondered: Is there a perfect age to have kids? If so, how did I miss it?

First, I learned that I'm not the only one who got started late. According to an August 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of first-time mothers in the United States jumped from 21.4 in 1970 to 25 in 2006. The number of first births for women 35 and older has increased nearly eight times since 1970.

Clearly I'm part of a fashionable trend, having had my babies at ages 34, 36, and 37. But is 39 a completely reckless proposition? How far am I from the "perfect age" at this point?

I consulted Ron Jaekle, MD, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in Ohio.

"If you take maternal physical maturity, educational/financial readiness, medical wellness, and chromosomal risks into consideration, 25 to 30 would be optimal, with the five years on either side being almost as good," Dr. Jaekle says.

But aren't the odds of a chromosomally normal child for an older mother still very good? For example, if my child's risk of Down syndrome is 1 in 100 (the risks are 1:1,400 for women in their 20s), then I still have a 99% chance of a healthy pregnancy, right?

Dr. Jaekle reminded me that those odds aren't the only consideration. "Forty-year-olds have an increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, preterm labor, and preterm delivery, in addition to the chromosome risks," he says.

I also learned that pregnancies between puberty and one's mid-20s have surprising health risks, including premature labor, anemia, and high blood pressure. A study published by the University of Texas at Austin revealed that the best health outcomes for mother and child occur when the first pregnancy is in the late 20s or early 30s. According to the study, the ideal age for pregnancy and motherhood is sometime between ages 25 and 34.

So I moped around the house, wondering why I had waited so long. Why can't I be the mom in Cheaper by the Dozen and have as many kids as I want?

Then I thought about who I was from age 25 to 30. I think wistfully of the nights in my 20s—I would stay up half the night dancing and then bounce into work the next morning, perky as ever. But I also had a mountain of debt left over from graduate school. And I didn't meet the man of my dreams (and father of my future children) until I was 30. Then we spent a few years together before embarking on our parenthood adventure.

By age 34, we had a great marriage and well-established careers; plus, my debt was paid off. We bought a car and a house in the suburbs. So, for us, the perfect age to have kids was right at the outer edge of Dr. Jaekle's recommendation. And we were probably smart to wait until we were financially stable. One child can cost more than $221,000, according to report by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Although our fertility is certainly not at its peak, this has been the right time to welcome babies into our arms.

Yes, my age was probably the reason we experienced two miscarriages after our first daughter was born, but now we are the best parents we can be, owing not just to our physical readiness, but also to the "educational/financial readiness" that Dr. Jaekle mentioned.

So I have to agree with him. If I'd only had my act together—romantically, financially, emotionally—during my mid-20s, I could have sailed through motherhood more easily. But it took me a few years to find an ideal place to nest and raise my brood. I may get crabby with anything less than eight hours of sleep and hear my knees crack when I play with my girls on the floor, but I also know I'm giving them a more stable environment than I could have in my 20s.

And as I mull my reproductive tardiness, I'm putting my baby's outgrown clothes up in the attic. I'm not quite ready to let them—or my fallopian tubes—go just yet.