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14th Apr 2017

New study finds there is some great news for older mums

Trine Jensen-Burke

One in five women would be afraid to tell their boss that they're pregnant - US study

I was 28 when I fell pregnant with my first child – which, although not exactly a planned event, still felt like it happened at a time in my life where I was ready for it.

I kind of felt like I had gotten all the things I wanted to spend my 20s doing out of the way by then, and could properly be excited about this new chapter. I had studied and backpacked and worked and backpacked some more and fallen in love and out of love and generally just done all the things your 20s are for.

Also, at 28, I was a full five years older than my mum was having me, who, in the early 80s, decided that 23 was the perfect age to start a family. Which is was for many at that time.

Now, however, this is far from the case, and maternal age across the developed world has been steadily rising over the last two decades. In the US, there are now far more women between the ages of 30 and 44 giving birth than in any other age bracket. And those numbers are similar for Europe.

And as birthrates shift toward somewhat older mothers, researchers continue to look at what this means, both for mums and babies.

In a study published in February in the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers looked at evidence from three different large longitudinal studies in Britain, from 1958, 1970 and 2000-2. They looked at the association between maternal age at children’s birth and children’s cognitive ability when tested at age 10-11.

And guess what? While back in the day there seemed to be a negative association between advanced maternal age and cognitive scores in children, this trend had completely reversed by the latest study, where children born to the 35- to 39-year-olds did significantly better on the cognitive testing than the children born to the younger mothers.

This is what lead study author Alice Goisis from the London School of Economics and Political Science had to say about the results:

“The characteristics of older mothers have changed drastically over time.”

For instance, in the older studies women who were having children into their late 30s were more likely to be women who had many children, and possibly poorer, whereas in the later study, the millennium cohort study done in 2000-2, the older mothers were more likely to be educated and socioeconomically better off.

As well as this, other studies have shown how parenting attitudes and practices change as mothers grow older. In a recent study from Denmark, researchers looked at how parenting practices and children’s development varied with maternal age in a group of 4,741 families in Denmark.

What they found, was that older mothers were less likely to be harsh with their 7- and 11-year-old children, either in terms of scolding or of physical discipline. As well as this, their children were less likely to have behavioural, social and emotional problems.

Lead author of the study, Tea Trillingsgaard, an associate professor of psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark, explains:

“Older mothers seem to thrive better,” says Trillingsgaard. “The mothers have more psychological flexibility, more cognitive flexibility, more ability to tolerate complex emotional stimuli from the children.”

In fact, even after controlling for all the demographic and socioeconomic factors, the researchers still found that older maternal age itself continued to be associated with these more positive outcomes.

“Emotional well-being tends to increase with age,” explains Trillingsgaard. “Age in itself may be an advantage.”

However, the clear message from all the studies is that the children of women with more support and better health habits do better cognitively, so the most important thing we can all do, it to support mothers of any age.