How old is too old to have a baby?
We unpack how age really affects conception and pregnancy–and when to see a fertility specialist.
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Top things to know about age and trying to conceive:
There is no “right time” to plan a pregnancy
You can conceive after 35, but the chances do decrease
Reach out to a fertility specialist if you’re under 35 and you’ve not conceived after a year of trying
Once you decide to start planning a pregnancy, a new world opens up: vitamins, ovulation, lab tests, and ultrasounds.
Information about age and pregnancy can be overwhelming (1,2). If you are 35 or older, it’s likely that what you’ve read on the internet or heard from friends might make you feel like you waited too long. The truth is, if there is sperm and your body is ovulating, there is a chance you can become pregnant, no matter your age (1-3).
When is the best time to conceive?
There is no “right time” to plan a pregnancy. Some people try to conceive after finishing their studies, or before the end of the year, or while their partner has time off, or for reasons that only make sense to them (1,4,5). Only you can decide if and when you try to conceive.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls these choices the “reproductive life plan” (6). It’s okay if what was once your plan has changed, or if it changes again in the future.
Worldwide, waiting until one’s 30s to plan a pregnancy is becoming more and more common. One out of 10 pregnant people in Sweden and one out of five in Finland are older than 35 (1,7,8). In the USA, in 2014, the mean age for the first pregnancy was around 26 years, and one out of 10 people were older than 35 in their first pregnancy (9).
How age affects conception
Eggs age over time, along with the rest of the body. Age can also impact sperm. Eggs are already formed in the ovaries when an infant is born, and from the onset of puberty, some eggs are released as they reach maturity throughout each menstrual cycle (10). The total number of eggs decreases gradually with time, and so does their ability to become a pregnancy (10).
This is one of the reasons why people are advised to become pregnant earlier in life, as the odds of ovulating an egg that can become a typical pregnancy naturally decreases with age (6). This recommendation doesn’t take into account the financial, emotional, or physical ability to parent, which some people develop later in life
You’ve probably heard about egg freezing, a medical procedure during which some eggs are removed and protected from aging until you feel ready to conceive (6,11). It can be beneficial if you’re feeling anxious about aging and don’t feel ready for a pregnancy at the moment, but there are limitations (11). Egg freezing can be done at any age but is done ideally before a person reaches their mid-30s (12). And using frozen eggs to delay pregnancy until an advanced age can have a higher risk for complications for both the birthing person and the fetus/newborn (13).
How age affects pregnancy
Pregnancy in people older than 35 might have a higher chance of concern, and this age group is called “advanced age” (1). Although it might sound like a heavy label and cause worry, studies have shown that pregnant people older than 35 still enjoy being pregnant and have a positive perception and expectations related to having children (1).
There is enough evidence to show that the chances of developing dangerous conditions that can impact the pregnant parent and fetus/newborn increase after age 35 (1). Some chronic conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, are more common with age. These conditions are directly linked to some pregnancy conditions that can be life-threatening (1,14).
But keep in mind that if a provider calls a pregnancy “high risk” due to “advanced maternal age” it may not be an assessment of you and your health, but rather assumptions that healthcare providers make to provide you with the right level of care. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have been diagnosed with a chronic or pregnancy-related condition so they can address your specific outlook.
Can I conceive after 35?
The chance of becoming pregnant without medical assistance goes down with age. It is true that there is a slow decline in the ages of first-time pregnancies that begins in the late 20s and continues from the mid to late 30s (2,15). This cutoff age of 35 is often used, but it can be confusing. It gives the idea that everything is fine before age 35, and then everything gets drastically worse after 35—a so-called “fertility cliff.” Try to remember that the chances of conception depend on more than just your age; your health history and what you eat, drink, and do can also impact your likelihood of conception (16).
Every so often, new statistics are published that offer a general idea of the expected chance of conception at each age, but these aren’t really helpful because conception is very individual to each person.
What are ovarian reserve tests?
You may have heard of tests that can help you determine how many eggs you have left. This is called “ovarian reserve” testing and can be done by a reproductive healthcare provider. The likelihood of ovulation that can lead to pregnancy is estimated by measuring hormones in your blood (17). The number of oocytes, or immature eggs, in the ovaries can be visually estimated by ultrasound (17). These tests are not perfect and cannot reliably tell you if you will or will not conceive (18). Ask your healthcare provider if one of these tests might be helpful for you. They are typically only recommended if you are considering assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like in vitro fertilization (IVF) (17).
When to see a specialist
The official recommendation from specialists for couples and people who want to conceive is simple: start trying (16). Decide how aware of the conception process you want to be. Some people find it useful to track their menstrual cycle and ovulation, and having this information can be useful if you end up seeing a specialist (19), but many people become pregnant just by having frequent sex.
How do you know when to seek help from a healthcare provider if you don’t become pregnant right away? The general recommendations are (15):
If you’re under 35 and have been trying to conceive for one year or longer, an OB/GYN can help you identify what’s going on.
People who are 35 or older and have been trying to conceive for six months or longer are encouraged to see a reproductive healthcare provider.
If you are 40 or older and want to conceive, it’s recommended that you partner with an OB/GYN right away.
If you have not conceived within these timelines, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong or that you’ll never become pregnant. There are many reasons conception can take longer, and your OB/GYN can help you identify what’s going on. Many people who do not conceive within these windows go on to conceive with the right guidance and some go on to use assisted reproductive technology (ART).
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