Prefer to spend your 20s traveling through Europe rather than wiping poop off the floor and singing Baby Shark on repeat? Hell, we don’t blame you. Not only does it sound about a million times more appealing, the accessibility of fertility treatments like IVF can make having kids in your 30s, 40s, and beyond seem like an easy possibility. Plus, screw society for saying women should start a family by a certain age, or that women can’t achieve their goals (read: travel bucket lists) first and then have kids!
But, your biological clock is still ticking, girl. And despite the wonders of modern medicine, there is a peak female fertility age and the older you are, the harder it can be to fall pregnant. So while it might feel all rather ‘adulty’, it’s essential to know how age affects fertility and what your options are for conceiving later in life to make an educated choice around family planning. Let’s explore.
How does age affect fertility?
In women, age can affect the number and quality of your eggs – known as your ovarian reserve. You are born with all the eggs you’ll ever have, meaning they are simply used up over time. Then the quality of the remaining eggs you have can become a little sketchy the older you get – they are more likely to have abnormalities that can prevent pregnancy from occurring or cause miscarriage. Age also predisposes you to conditions that can affect fertility, like fibroids, endometriosis, and tubal disease.
But, guess what? Age can affect fertility in men too. (Our pay might not be equal, but our roles in the journey to conception are.) In men, the number of sperm and how well those little swimmers swim decline over time. This can be problematic because you need sperm to fertilize your egg, and you need the sperm to swim all the way to your fallopian tubes to do so.
It’s also essential to understand that age can affect your pregnancy – the risk of complications increases the older you are (what the f*ck Mother Nature). Over the age of 35, you’re more likely to experience issues such as miscarriage, stillbirth, gestational diabetes, or placenta previa. You’re more likely to need a cesarean at birth. And your baby is also at greater risk of genetic problems like Down Syndrome. While this all sucks hardcore, it’s an important consideration in deciding when you might start trying to have kids.
When does fertility start to decline?
For women, fertility begins to decline around age 32. It’s gradual at first, but by age 37, it starts to dwindle more rapidly. So what age are women most fertile? Your peak fertility age is in your 20s, and early 30s. To illustrate this, these are your chances of getting pregnant by age each month you try to conceive – you’ll note by 40 it’s declined substantially:
Source: CCRM Fertility
So while there’s no best age to get pregnant (you need to do what’s right for you), there is an age where it becomes harder to get pregnant.
For men, the fertility decline is much slower than for women. It generally begins around age 40-45 and is at its lowest after age 55. What age are men most fertile? Between 30-35.
What are your options?
It’s essential to be aware of your fertility by age, how age affects fertility, as well as your options for conceiving if you’re not ready to have kids or you’re getting started a little later in life. These are some of the actions you can take to help your chances of falling pregnant when the time comes.
Egg or sperm freezing
It’s often thought that IVF can overcome the effects of age on fertility and allow couples to conceive at any time. But, that’s not the case – if the eggs and sperm you and your partner have aren’t good quality or just downright non-existent, you’ll need to look at other paths to make IVF work for you. One of those paths? Freezing your eggs or your partner’s sperm before your fertility truly starts to decline, to use for IVF at a later time.
Egg or sperm donation
If freezing isn’t for you, you’ve struggled with low egg or sperm count from a young age, or you’re starting your baby journey once your fertility has begun to decline, you could look at using donated eggs or sperm for IVF.
Your doctor can test your fertility, so you can understand how quickly you might need to start trying to conceive if you want to try doing so au natural, or how you might best conceive (e.g., with the support of donated sperm for IVF).
Your doctor can check your ovarian reserve via a blood test that measures the levels of FSH or AMH hormones in your body. High levels of FSH may indicate a diminished ovarian reserve, whereas increased levels of AMH can suggest you have eggs available. For your partner, a doctor might undertake a semen analysis to check for abnormalities or a blood test to check if there’s anything out of whack with his hormones.
When to speak to a doctor
What age is considered a high risk pregnancy? 35, it seems, is the age where pregnancy becomes harder and riskier for women. (It’s also the age from which your doctor might refer to your pregnancy a ‘geriatric pregnancy’ – how rude!). If you’re over 35 and don’t have any known conditions that might affect your fertility, you could start trying to conceive naturally. But if you haven’t seen success after six months, speak to a fertility doctor. If you’re over age 40 or know you have a condition that might contribute to infertility, talk to a fertility doctor before trying to conceive. They can give you advice on women’s age and fertility, your fertility rates by age and your odds of getting pregnant by age, to work out what your best options are for falling pregnant from the get-go.
What affects female fertility for you, might be different for another. So if you’re concerned about your fertility or ability to get pregnant at any age or stage in the journey to becoming a mama, speak to your family doctor or a fertility specialist.