Delay Parenthood? Better Think Again

Survey Shows Many People Overestimate Odds of Getting Pregnant After 40

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 17, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 17, 2005 - Young professionals who plan to put off parenthood may be overly optimistic about their chances of ending up with the family they desire.

A survey of men and women seeking advanced degrees at a Swedish university found that both sexes tended to overestimate a woman's chances of having children after age 40.

Almost everyone questioned said they wanted children, and four out of five wanted more than one child. But one in eight women said they planned to wait until their 40s to have their last baby, and almost half planned to wait until at least age 35.

A researcher on the study called the findings "alarming" because so few of the students seemed to understand that a woman's chances of having a baby start to decline in her mid-30s.

It Won't Happen to Us

According to figures from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, one-third of women trying to conceive after age 35 will have problems getting pregnant, and two-thirds of women over age 40 will not be able to conceive without medical treatment.

"Few of those surveyed were aware of the very sharp decline in fertility that occurs before age 40," Claudia Lampic, PhD, tells WebMD.

"I think couples just assume that they will be able to have babies, and they don't think so much about fertility. They may have read that fertility declines after age 35, but they think it won't happen to them."

The survey included 222 women and 179 men selected randomly from students seeking degrees in medicine, law, economics, or engineering at Sweden's Uppsala University. Their average age was 24.

A total of 97% of the men and 96% of the women who did not have children said they wanted them someday. Men most often said they hoped to have three children, and women were evenly divided between a desire for two or three.

Two-thirds of the women said they hoped to have their first child before the age of 30, but the rest planned to give birth for the first time between age 30 and 34. Just over one in 10 said they hoped to have their last baby in their 40s, but almost half (47%) chose 35-39 as the ideal age for their last child.

Misunderstanding Fertility Treatments

Just over half of the men surveyed hoped to have their first child after age 30 and before age 35. Nearly half wanted to have their last child between age 35 and 39, and one out of five hoped to have their last child between ages 40 and 44.

The study appears in the latest online edition of the journal Human Reproduction.

"This is not just a woman's issue," Lampic says. "This is a couple's issue."

She adds that couples often wrongly believe that infertility treatments can reliably prolong a woman's fertility. This thinking may be less pervasive in the U.S. than in Sweden, where the government pays for the treatment.

"There is the feeling that if we can't have babies the normal way, we can rely on in vitro fertilization," she says. "But they are not aware that the chances of success with IVF also decline with age."

Julie Greenstein, who is director of government relations for the infertility support group RESOLVE, says women who have had a child before age 35 may not recognize the risks associated with waiting to have other children.

"If they had an easy time getting pregnant with a first child, they may wait longer than they should to seek treatment if they are having problems," she says. "The thinking may be, 'I can't have a problem with fertility because I already have a child.'"

Greenstein says women under 35 who have tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a year should see an infertility specialist. Women over 35 should wait no longer than six months.

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SOURCES: Lampic, C., Human Reproduction, Nov. 17, 2005 online edition. Claudia Lampic, PhD, associate professor, Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. WebMD Feature: "Fertile - or Futile?" ASRM Patient's Fact Sheet: "Prediction of Fertility Potential in Older Female Patients." Julie Greenstein, director of government relations, RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association.

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