Over the past few decades, the age when women have their first child has steadily increased. In 2022, the average age hit 30 for the first time in recorded history, signaling a new era of family planning that waits for financial stability and personal maturity.1 Worldwide, the trend has been for women to delay pregnancy well into their 30s and even into their 40s.15 Some of the reasons for delaying pregnancy include; higher rates of divorce, living together before marriage, or having a second or later marriage, limited job-related policies around childcare or leave for parents, financial security and the need for two incomes, educational and career opportunities as well as improved reproductive technologies.16
Despite the rising numbers, there’s still a stigma about having children when you’re older, and the “geriatric pregnancy” negativity still exists throughout society. So, how does this affect our 30-plus new mums, and how can we beat the geriatric pregnancy stigma?
What is the ‘Geriatric Pregnancy’ Stigma?
The term “geriatric pregnancy” was once used to describe pregnancy in women older than 35 – and sometimes as young as 30. As a medical term, however, it carries many negative connotations, and many moms object to being classified as geriatric in their 30s. Now, most medical professionals use words like “advanced maternal age,” which may feel slightly less offensive to some.2
But even with the geriatric labeling a thing of the past, the stigma still exists. Women beyond their 30s having children often face negative behavior and comments, while society, in general, is still being taught that to have a child over the age of 35 is somehow wrong when it isn’t. In fact, a term was coined “Healthcare Stereotype Threat” (HCST) which explores the stereotyping and stigma older pregnant mothers face when seeking health care and medical support during pregnancy. This stigma, in some cases, may negatively influence the quality of care received by these mothers.18
Some Issues Do Increase with Age
The number of pregnancy-related issues does indeed increase with age, including:3,17
- Congenital disorders and chromosomal conditions such as Down syndrome
- Miscarriage and stillbirths
- Ectopic pregnancies
- Placenta previa and abruption
- Gestational diabetes
It can be harder to become pregnant when you’re out of your 30s and moving closer toward menopause. Research by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology shows that 1 in 4 healthy women in their 20s or 30s can get pregnant in any menstrual cycle, and by the age of 40, that number drops to 1 in 10 women.4,5
However, the number of children born to women older than 35 without a problem is a testament to the fact it shouldn’t be an issue. Fertility rates in the U.S. between 1990 and 2019 for women ages 20-24 declined by 43%, while those of women ages 35-39 increased by 67% during the roughly 30-year period.6
Any significant problems are monitored closely, too, and modern medicine provides older moms with a wealth of tests, medical help, and post-pregnancy treatment options. Though the risks are higher, they’re still likely to be lower than stigma or misperception tells us.
The Effects of Geriatric Pregnancy Stigma
For men and women, negative connotations related to pregnancies in women over 35 can have plenty of knock-on effects when it comes to mental health. We’ve put together some of its impact to understand why it’s time to knock this stigma on its head.
Increases Anxiety in 35-Plus Pregnancies
The misguided idea that pregnancies in older women are full of risk for both the mom and the baby can drastically increase anxiety during pregnancy.7 Fear-mongering online, with endless articles that greatly exaggerate the safety concerns of a 35-plus pregnancy, can cause severe, chronic anxiety about something going wrong. While it’s true that high-risk pregnancies can result in fear, frustration, grief, anger, sadness, guilt, and even mental health disorders, geriatric pregnancies after 35 years of age are not always, or automatically high risk.5 However, the perception of them being high risk may also result in similar feelings to those who actually have high-risk pregnancies.
For some women, this perception of risk may even make them too nervous to have a child once they’re past a certain age, which is devastating when the risks are quite low.8
It’s important to note that increased anxiety is linked to higher levels of stress and the hormone cortisol, which can have negative impacts during pregnancy.9
Puts Pressure on Younger Women
Older pregnancy stigmas can put pressure on women in their 20s to have children. Calling 35-plus (and sometimes even 30-plus) pregnancies “geriatric” creates the idea that anyone who isn’t in their 20s is too old to be pregnant.
We’re all aware of the negative attention older pregnancies can attract, making it look unappealing. Unfortunately, pressure can result in women having children before they’re ready because they fear running out of time. This can lead to numerous mental health impacts, including the stress of not being psychologically ready.10
Feeling Pressure From Others
Geriatric pregnancy stigma is widespread. If you’ve ever had someone say to you, “You’ll need to start thinking about babies — the clock is ticking,” then you’ve experienced stigma.
External pressure can be just as harmful as internal pressure. Particularly in women already experiencing stress and mental health effects because of their own ideas, having outsiders comment on your “body clock” can be exhausting and lead to anxiety. Pressure from others may encourage a woman to have a child too soon, which comes with plenty of mental health concerns.
How Can We Break the Stigma?
The best way to fight back against the 35-plus geriatric pregnancy stigma is with facts. To ease your anxieties or use when anybody else brings up negative thoughts about older pregnancies, having an arsenal of readily available scientific-backed information is a great way to combat stigma in society.
It’s essential to acknowledge that getting older can increase pregnancy risks, but the chances of anything going severely wrong are still low. For example, a woman older than 40 has only a 2 in 1,000 chance of experiencing a stillbirth at 39-40 weeks, similar to women in their mid-20s at 41 weeks.11
There is a slightly higher risk (1 in 100) for miscarriage and babies born with Down syndrome in older parents who conceive at age 40 (and this is something to be aware of if you’re over 40, in particular). Still, with modern medicine, these risks can be watched and monitored.12
You’ll find that the more problems you uncover, the more solutions you find. For example, you can prevent gestational diabetes with diet and have regular blood pressure checks to prevent preeclampsia.13,14
If you’re anxious about waiting to have a child after your 20s, speak to your doctor. Remember, it’s your pregnancy and nobody else’s. As long as your doctor knows you’re healthy enough, nobody else gets to say when you have a child.