A baby boom among older women has trebled the number giving birth after their 40th birthday. Almost 27,000 babies were born to mothers over 40 last year, figures revealed yesterday. The unprecedented level is nearly three times the total of 20 years ago and up by 50 per cent over the past decade.
Britain now has one of the highest birth rates for older women in the world, with 3.8 per cent of all babies born to mothers over 40. Only Italy has a higher level in Europe. But the trend has led medical experts to warn that older women face greater risks of miscarriages and complications - with calls for the NHS to spend more on specialised services for those expecting children as they approach middle age. More and more Britons are delaying motherhood following the rise in women enjoying well-paid careers, as well as the growing need for both partners in a couple to have an income. An increasing number of live-in relationships also means many young women are uncertain they have the stability they need to raise a child.
The waiting and uncertainty has also left a record number of women childless - latest estimates say that one in five is likely to go through life without having children. Office for National Statistics figures yesterday revealed there were 26,976 babies born to mothers of 40 and over last year, compared with 9,336 in 1989. And 12.9 in every 1,000 women of 40 and over in England and Wales had a child in 2009, up from 8.1 in every 1,000 ten years earlier.
Because the ONS does not give a detailed breakdown of the figures, many mothers could be over 45, 50 or even older. At the same time the number of children born to mothers in their 30s has dropped - almost certainly as a result of the impact of recession on incomes. Numbers of children born to women aged between 35 and 39 fell for the first time in a decade, and babies for women aged 30 to 34 were down for the first time in five years.
The trend means Britain has the second highest birth rate among older women in Europe, behind Italy. That country's prosperous northern cities, education and career opportunities are leading women to delay motherhood in the same way as in Britain, while in poorer rural areas a tradition of women who stay at home has also encouraged pregnancies later in life. In America, births to mothers over 40 are running higher than at any time since the Sixties - but British over-40s are still a third more likely to have a child.
The average age of a new mother in the UK is now 29.4 years, a year older than the average in 1999. Among married mothers, the typical age of childbirth is even older, and married mothers on average have their first child at 31. Researcher and author on family life Patricia Morgan said women delaying children until they feel financially secure are in danger of putting motherhood off for too long.
She said: 'It comes to a point where you can never afford children. What is happening is that women in their 20s and 30s are delaying families because they have to pay the mortgage, and you need two earners for that these days. Women are also in relationships they do not trust to last.
'People wait endlessly and more and more people are not having children until their 40s.' Women who choose motherhood at a later age also run much greater health risks for themselves and their baby. Over the age of 35, the possibility of infertility rises, and for those who become pregnant there are greater chances of miscarriage or complications during pregnancy or labour.
Children of older mothers also run a greater risk of ill-health or abnormalities such as Down's syndrome. Last year the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said a woman over 40 was two or three times more likely to lose her baby than a younger mother.
Its president Professor Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran said the NHS should be better equipped to care for older mothers. He said: 'Later pregnancy is associated-with more complications and specialised obstetric help is required to care for this growing group of women. Later maternal age is now a fact of life and something which the NHS must prepare for.' Overall, the numbers of children born last year were down in England and Wales, from 708,711 in 2008 to 706,248.
Birth rates stayed high largely because immigrant mothers are having more children than mothers who were born in Britain. Nearly a quarter of all children born last year, 24.7 per cent, had mothers who were born abroad. The proportion of children born to foreign-born mothers has gone up from 14.3 per cent ten years ago. Births outside marriage also continued to go up last year with 46.2 per cent of babies born to unmarried parents, around a fifth more than in the late 1990s. The figure is higher among mothers born in Britain, more than half of whom were unmarried when they gave birth last year.
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Article 26th May 2010 www.dailymail.co.uk