Tips for pregnancy in your 20s, 30s and 40s
There's rarely a perfect time to have a baby, but there are tips for all ages here, says Ali Horsfall.
When is the right time to have a baby?’ Argh, yes, the million-dollar question. The perfect pregnancy age is a red-hot topic that everyone from your mum to your doctor will offer an opinion on. ‘Don’t leave it too late’ and ‘Just enjoy your life first’ is the contradictory and not very helpful advice we hear, whether it’s for our first babies or subsequent siblings. But the real truth is that babies will arrive when they arrive – how it happens is all part of your life’s tapestry. Sure, there are tales of teen mums who go on to have seven kids, or celebs who get their miracle babies after the age of 50, but for most of us, baby-making happens in our twenties, thirties and forties – conceiving by chance, by trying hard, or somewhere in between.
I fell pregnant in my early twenties when I had no proper life plans, no money, and could barely keep a plant alive. Guess what? It all turned out great. I was expecting at the same time as Victoria Beckham who, despite our differences, I regarded as my bump spirit animal (my actual friends were in the pub). VB was pregnant at 24, 27, 30 and 36 (phew). If she goes for baby number five (believing the gossip), she’d be pregnant in her forties too. So what’s to consider with a pregnancy at all these different ages? We take a look and hear from ladies who’ve done it (spoiler alert: making, carrying and birthing a baby is just awesome, whenever it happens).
If your late teens and twenties weren’t particularly healthy (oops), pregnancy is the time to turn things around – you need more than a flat white and a bacon sarnie when you’re growing a human. A big benefit of carrying a baby for nine months is that the liver gets a complete cleanse from all those Jägerbombs and bottles of rosé, but the body needs nourishing too, with a rainbow of fruit and veg, essential fatty acids, protein, calcium and vitamin D-rich foods.
Research shows women over 30 are more likely to take folic acid, pre- and post-conception, than younger women who aren’t always up on baby-making best practice. It can reduce the risk of neural tube defects (abnormalities, such as spina bifida), which arise at 24-28 days after conception. ‘Supplementation in the three months before you conceive and first 12 weeks of pregnancy reduces this risk by 70 per cent, as well as reducing the risk of “small for gestational age” babies, cleft lip and palate,’ says Henrietta Norton, nutritionist and author of Your Pregnancy Nutrition Guide (£8.99, Vermilion).
‘It is hard but it’s phenomenal. It’s the greatest thing I ever did', Adele on having her baby boy aged 24.
If pregnancy was a big surprise, or conception happened more quickly than expected, getting your head around it can take time. Who me? A mother? Are you sure? It’s tempting to be ‘business as usual’ – if you feel great, there seems no reason to change a busy life. But, says nurse, midwife and health visitor Ruth Oshikanlu, ‘Conception is when parenting begins, and the nine months of pregnancy is an important time to form a relationship with your baby so they are born bonded, because happy and healthy babies are made inside the womb.’
But even if pregnancy is planned and prepped for, friends may not be at the same stage and it can feel isolating without your own mum crew of the same age who understand and can support you. After all, long-time besties, while brilliant, may still be pulling all-nighters that are totally different to those of a new mum. That’s why Jenny Scott started Mother’s Meeting (mothersmeeting. com). She thinks motherhood is the start of a new, awesome life, and after having her first baby at 28 wanted a space where she could just be herself. ‘I wanted to meet women in the same situation, who didn’t want to lose their identity because they’ve given birth,’ she says.
Hattie wanted to be a young mum and was expecting at 27
‘I’d always said I would like to have had my first baby before I was 30, and I had Theo at 27. I’m the first among my friends to have a baby. When we decided to try, I cut down on booze and took a pre-pregnancy supplement, and we were very fortunate that it only took a month to happen. I think if I’d wanted just one child, then I might have waited until my thirties, doing the career thing for a bit longer, but ideally I’d like to have three children so now I’ve still got plenty of time.
‘I put on just shy of 20kgs during my pregnancy, but that was mostly all bump and the body changes I experienced were all positive ones – my hair became thick and glossy and my nails were amazing. I’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of 19 so I had an elective C-section. I was more scared about actually having a baby and all that goes with it than I was about the operation. But – it sounds utterly ridiculous – afterwards, once I was in the comfort of my own home, I felt myself again in about three days. I was almost able to pick up where I left off, it was just that this time I had an actual human, that we made, in my arms. It’s a massive life change, but being a mum is now one of the best things in my entire life – which confirms that I was as “ready” as I’ll ever be.’
Although 30-something pregnancies can be plain sailing (most babies in the UK are born to mums aged 30-34), the chances of developing complications do rise through your thirties. For instance, there’s a 12 per cent risk of miscarrying when in your early thirties, rising to 20 per cent in your late thirties, which can be caused by chromosomal abnormalities in the foetus. In your late thirties you’ll be offered screening and diagnostic tests for genetic abnormalities, in addition to all the routine antenatal checks. Once your pregnancy is established, self-care and keeping healthy can make all the difference between an exhausted or an energetic experience.
Most of us are juggling work, home, family, friends – giving new meaning to the word knackered – but trying to fit in gentle exercise can help prep the body for birth. Giving your pelvic floor some attention now can also pay off. Suzy Clarkson, physiotherapist, fitness expert and author of Fit for Birth and Beyond (£12.99, Exisle), says the more you can tone those muscles, the better they will serve you in pregnancy and birth. ‘As pregnancy progresses, the pelvic floor muscles come under increasing strain, due to hormonal changes, weight gain and pressure from the growing baby and uterus. Studies show that providing pelvic floor muscle education, and encouragement of specific exercises during pregnancy and after birth, is effective in preventing incontinence six months later.’ Use ’em or lose ’em, ladies.
‘I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was 16, but I also just knew I wanted to have a career’, Anne Hathaway (pregnant at 33).
It’s entirely normal to obsess about birth when pregnant, but you can manage your worries and fears by getting hold of as much information as possible. Siobhan Miller of The Positive Birth Company (thepositivebirth company.co.uk) runs hypnobirthing classes and is used to seeing women in their thirties who are scared of giving birth because they’ve heard horror stories, seen one too many dramatic TV portrayals, or already have their own negative birth experience.
‘I’m often asked, “How will I know when to push?” and I tell them that the feeling is un-missable! As the baby’s head descends it feels very similar to the sensation when you need to go for a poo. There is a mounting pressure and you feel the baby’s head move down inside you. It’s an amazing and powerful sensation. Furthermore the muscles of your uterus will now start to move downwards. Your surges or contractions will feel very different and you will feel your body involuntarily begin to push. So I just tell women to listen to their bodies and to go with it. I teach a breathing technique but the most important thing is to trust that your body knows what it is doing and to help rather than hinder it.’
No wonder hypnobirthing is a hit with 30-something mums looking for a bit of calm and control.
Amandeep was pregnant with her son at 31
‘I’d got married in my late twenties, started trying for a baby in my thirties, and it happened quickly. In the first 12 weeks of pregnancy I was completely off food, especially meat, and in bed by 8.30pm. It was lovely to know my body was changing to accommodate our baby and I loved my growing bump. At 36 weeks I went on maternity leave; my commute had become very tiring. NCT classes prepared me well and provided a great network of people. I was still scared about giving birth, though; I’m a control freak, and it was something I’d never experienced, so couldn’t prepare for. I’d wanted a water birth but it was less than six hours from my first contraction to him being born. I recovered quickly, but the lack of sleep, new responsibility and routines mean life will never be the same again – not for quite a while, anyway. I was head over heels straight away though, and suddenly, nothing else mattered. I would love another child but timing is a factor: as a working mum I don’t think I could afford to have childcare for two kids at the same time.’
Preggers in your 40s
For the first time since 1947, there are more women over 40 than under 20 having babies. Medical advances and careers contribute to this, but it doesn’t take a genius to know your love life plays a huge part too – sometimes meeting the right person just doesn’t happen until later. Wanting a child with a new partner can also be a factor. The terms elderly primigravida or geriatric mother don’t sound that cool (and actually are used from the age of 35), but exist to flag up the challenges and the possible complications of pregnancy in an older women. Whether they arrive by assisted or by natural conception, babies in this decade are a gift and the focus is on safe pregnancy and delivery.
The list of possible complications in a 40-plus pregnancy can make a scary read, but it’s worth remembering that every pregnancy is different and a 43- year-old woman may be physically fitter, healthier and in a better position to carry and give birth to a baby than a younger one. However, statistically there are increased risks of miscarriage, diabetes, placenta praevia, pre-eclampsia and chromosomal disorders in pregnancy past the age of 40, and these risks shouldn’t be disregarded. A study from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists also found that the risk of stillbirth at term – between 39 and 40 weeks – is doubled for women aged 40 or more. These women were found to have a stillbirth risk at 39 weeks similar to that of women in their twenties whose pregnancy had reached 41 weeks. This translated to an overall risk of one stillbirth in 132 births, and because of this, older mums-tobe may be encouraged to have an induction earlier than full term.
Gwen Stefani gave birth to her third boy at 44
Everyone has to adjust to the idea of pregnancy and parenthood, but it’s an even bigger change if you’re first-timers in your forties who have built a whole life before this as a couple. ‘I’d worked at my career during my twenties and thirties,’ says Analise, mum to Jake, three, ‘and the bonus of getting pregnant at 42 was that we had savings and a good maternity package. So I could enjoy pregnancy and being a new mum, and not be too stressed about what would happen to my career. ‘When I started maternity leave, I went from work-focused to housewife overnight, and it shook the dynamics with my husband for a while. He started to expect his dinner on the table!’ Discussing with your partner how your relationship will change as your pregnancy progresses and the baby arrives can help manage expectations of your new family life.
Lisa became pregnant for the first time at 45
‘We’d been trying to conceive for about six years and started IVF when I was 42. We had to save for each round so it took a few years but our fourth round worked. I didn’t have morning sickness; my only real symptoms were needing to wee a lot, sleepless nights and swollen feet in the last few weeks. I had regular scans because of a shortened cervix but that wasn’t because of my age, and was induced at 39 weeks because of the risks of going full term as an older mum. I worked right up until the day before my induction, but I run my own business so was able to have a snooze in the day.
‘I watched lots of One Born Every Minute to help my birth nerves. The midwife said my breathing technique was good and I had a natural birth, which I wanted. Afterwards it took me around six weeks to feel physically and mentally Ok. I had an episiotomy so that took longer to heal properly but I was working again in a couple of weeks.
‘Nearly all my school friends had children in their twenties – some are grandmothers now! In my twenties and thirties I wasn’t in relationships where I wanted children, but I feel fortunate that I’m a mum now – and I have two frozen embryos, which we’ll try with early next year. I look after myself and am pretty healthy so I’m hoping to be a grandmother too eventually. In some respects, being a first-time mum at 46 has made me feel older – that’ll be the lack of sleep – but mixing with younger mums at swimming and baby groups makes me feel younger. I wouldn’t change a thing.’
Image Credit: Getty