WHEN should a woman start a family? It’s an issue which always provokes heated discussion — as can be seen in the online responses to our question, what’s the best time to have a baby?
The majority viewpoint seems to be that women should have a first baby whenever they want, when the time is right — but the fertility experts beg to differ.
Wait too long, they warn, and you risk infertility.
For most women in their 20s, pregnancy is the last thing on their mind.
They expect to travel, establish their careers and live it up, often parking any thoughts about motherhood until the next decade — figures show that the average age at which a woman gets married in Ireland is now 32; for the groom it’s 34.
However, Trudie Ní Chora always wanted to be a young mum— and her wish came true when she had her first child at just 22.
Once daughter Safia, now aged four had safely arrived, Trudie and her partner Michele (31) didn’t hang around, they started trying for Salma (aged three).
“Safia was planned,” says Ní Chora, now 27 and one of just 9 per cent of Irish mums who have their babies in their early 20s.
“I always wanted to have my children young — my mum had me when she was 21 and she’s only turning 50 this year.
“She’s still very much on the same wavelength as me,” says the young businesswoman who launched her online angel shop and angel-card reading service, Indigo Grace, last Christmas.
“Once I had Safia I wanted her to have a brother or sister as quickly as possible.
“I was a full-time mum ’til last year when I set up my business — it’s going great.”
The Duncormick, Co Wexford woman is in the minority these days, as many women now wait until their 30s or even later, to try for their first child.
However, experts say there is a direct link between age and level of fertility. Top British consultant gynaecologist Professor Geeta Nargund recently urged women not to postpone parenthood until your 30s.
Cue a barrage of screaming headlines about the link between age and falling fertility — and panic among some 30-somethings.
Says obstetrician gynaecologist Mary McCaffrey: “I’ve met a few people in their 30s who are starting to panic.”
The Tralee-based consultant says that even though they were in their 30s, some of these women had presumed they wouldn’t even start trying for a baby for another three or four years.
Some would-be mothers are even waiting to see her until their late 30s or older, she says — and when “the clanger is dropped about their fertility levels”, they can be very upset.
There’s a lack of comprehension about the link between age and fertility, agrees Dr John Waterstone, medical director of the Cork Fertility Clinic, who reveals that he’s even been labelled “ageist” after explaining that, by the early 40s, many women have effectively “missed the boat.”
He believes this is partly because of a misperception about fertility caused by the publicity given to women who conceive in their 40s — but the fact is that such women often become pregnant through donor eggs.
“This doesn’t seem to get through to them, which creates a misperception that fertility treatment can fix anything, even for women in their 40s.”
So yes, having babies young does make pretty sound biological sense.
However building a career, meeting the man of your dreams, getting hitched and having children all before you reach the age of 30 is a tall order for even the most dynamic women — not to mention the prospect of forswearing the hectic party-lifestyle of the Irish 20-something.
Trudie Ní Chora had a job in sales before becoming pregnant with Safia, but she didn’t mind giving it up to stay at home with her babies, though she admits she feels the hit on her social life: “A lot of my friends are free and single and life is about partying and travel so I still miss that a little bit.
“My friends go off travelling, or they could go partying at short notice and I can’t do that.”
However, she says, she’s very content — having kids hasn’t interfered with her ambitions to launch a successful business: “I did an open your own business course and a course on reading angel cards.
“Having the girls didn’t stop me. I just work around them.”
On the upside, says Trudie, having youth on her side meant her energy levels are very high — plus her young, healthy body recovered quickly from two caesarean births.
“’I’m able to manage the teething and the sleepless nights.
“I’m able to run around the garden with them, which I don’t think I would do as much if I was 40.
“If I was older I don’t think I’d have the energy for that!”
Trudie, however, is the exception to the rule. Irish first-time mothers are among the oldest in Europe, according to Eurostat.
While the average age for an Irish woman to have her first child is 30, according to last December’s HSE Perinatal Statistic Report, Eurostat figures show nearly 53 per cent of Irish first-time mums were aged between 30 and 39 in 2013.
Last year, more than half of the women in the EU who gave birth to their first child were still in their 20s — in fact the average age for a European woman to have her first child is 28.
Eurostat also found that Ireland has one of the highest proportions of first-baby births to women in their 40s, with nearly 3.5 per cent of first-time mothers here aged 40 and over last year.
This trend of ageing first-time mothers is underlined by the HSE study, which found the number of women under the age of 30 giving birth for the first time dropped between 2004 and 2013.
About 20 per cent of first births in 2013 were to women aged 35 years or older, compared to 13 per cent in 2004.
According to the report, only 9 per cent of births were to mothers aged between 20 and 24, while around 20 per cent were to mothers between the ages of 25 and 29.
Lifestyle issues encourage Irishwomen to have their babies at an older age — students stay on longer in college, women feel the need to build a career and travel, plus there’s an increasing social acceptance of older mums.
However, one of the single biggest factors in all of this, says McCaffrey, is the lack of awareness among young women about how the body works.
“We know that women are born with a number of eggs, and that those eggs are for all of their lives.”
Over time these eggs will naturally deplete, she explains, adding that other factors such as smoking, genetics and lifestyle all play a major role in this depletion.
“There are a lot of toxins in our lives now in the environment that would not have been there in our grandmothers’ time,” she says.
“However, for people who are otherwise healthy, the biggest factor is age, and we know that the depletion of eggs is more significant from age 35.”
But people don’t seem to understand this, she says: “What shocks me is that even women of 40 are stunned when you tell them that they’re not likely to conceive.
A lot of women come in at 40 aware they may have a fertility issue, but presume there is a ‘magic pill’, she says.
“They’re not even aware that their eggs might have depleted. They will ask if there’s a tablet to help them make the eggs grow.
“They don’t seem to understand about how their eggs deplete over time and don’t appear to be aware that if their eggs are depleted, IVF may not be able to help.”
Egg freezing, which involves a woman doing a cycle of IVF and storing her eggs — about €6,000 a year for the procedure plus storage costs — is a possibility.
However, points out McCaffrey, €6,000 is a large sum for someone in their 20s.
Furthermore, fertility experts tend to disagree over the chances of a baby being born as a result of egg freezing — some suggest there’s a one-in-three chance of having a baby while others claim success rates as high as 50 per cent.
However, the majority agree the success rate really depends on the age of the woman, the number of eggs removed from the ovary and how successfully these eggs are fertilised.
The big question is how to get the biological facts about fertility into the public arena at a time when women and men will take note.
School is too soon, McCaffrey and Waterstone agree — after all, fertility levels are the very last thing on the average 18-year-old’s radar.
“However,” warns Waterstone, “you should be thinking about it when you hit 30.
“If you want to have a child and haven’t done anything about it by age 35 you’re taking chances and that’s the reality.
“A single year in the late 30s or early 40s can make the difference between making a baby and not.”
Perhaps it’s time for the Irish government to start looking at the example of other countries, suggests Dr David Walsh medical director of the Sims Clinics.
Most developed countries are now struggling with the issue of population reproduction, he says, but the only European country which is managing to achieve anything like this is France, because the government has quite simply incentivised women to have a third child.
Russia also tackled the problem head-on, introducing a Day of Conception on September 12— couples who give birth exactly nine months later get a prize — in 2012 a winning couple were presented with an apartment.
Denmark introduced a programme called Do It For Denmark, which encouraged couples to conceive, while in Israel, the government offers free IVF for up to two babies.
“We need to do some version of this in Ireland,” says Walsh, adding that women need to understand that, statistically, the safest and best time to have children is in their 20s, not their 30s.
Awareness campaigns could be a key, while free or discounted fertility tests for women in their twenties could be provided either through the GP or a fertility doctor.
“If our total fertility rates really decline, the Irish government should follow the Israeli example and possibly fund free IVF.”
Iseult Ní Dhomhnaill-Clark was 27 when her first child Béibhinn was born.
Lonán was born when she was 29 and Caíntigern when she was 32.
“I definitely see the difference between having a baby at 27 and at 32,” she says.
“It’s not huge but I’ve noticed little things — you are just more tired when you get older.
“Also, when we decided to get pregnant with Béibhinn and Lonán, I fell pregnant straight away. But it took me three months to get pregnant with my third child.
"She was my hardest and longest labour. I had planned a home birth but ended up being transferred [to hospital] — she wouldn’t rotate.
“I just remember being really tired that I’d had had enough. That’s one of the things that is putting me off having more.
“I don’t know if my body can do that again. I’m sure it can but I just think I’m 34 now. I’m tired.”
Having children at a young age was always a priority.
“My mother started her family when she was 21 and had six of us. She was 28 when I was born.
“If I was doing it all over again I would absolutely, not a shadow of a doubt, start my family at a young age — in my 20s.
“Some people mention how they want to travel, educate themselves, have a career before having children. Yet, I have travelled far and wide, spending a year in Australia, travelling through Russia, Mongolia, and China.
"I also visited South East Asia and Cuba, while doing my degree. Then I started a family at 27. So that theory wasn’t the case for me.”
Married to Philip and living in Tallaght, Co Dublin, she is currently on a career break from her work as a tutor for children with special needs.
Emma Walsh had always longed to have her children at a young age — and her wish came true when she had her first baby at 21.
Now 18 months, her son Seán, is her pride and joy.
The 22-year-old from New Ross, Co Wexford, always wanted to have my children in her 20s — her mum had her at the age of 23, she says.
When she discovered she was pregnant at 21, she left college where she had been on a Fetac childcare course.
She regrets leaving college, she says: “I do regret that I didn’t get my education first, I should have nailed down the education.”
However, Emma is planning to begin a degree course in psychology and law in 2016.
After breaking up with her partner, Seán’s father, shortly after his first birthday, she’s raising her son alone.
But being a young mum also has some big advantages: “I love Seán, and I love being at home with him. I have the energy, for the sleepless nights. It was either be up all night with a baby or be up all night socialising.”
She’s not your archetypal 20-something fuelled by fast-food and Red Bull, she points out.
“I am clued in about nutrition. My priority had always been to have very healthy and organic food even before I became pregnant.
“I feel I’m handling things well. The thing I love about being 22 and having a toddler is that, although Seán’s very boisterous and adventurous with a lot of energy, I’m able for it.
“My favourite bit of the day is the afternoon when we go outside and do somersaults and tumbles and burn off all that extra energy.
"I notice that a lot of mums who are older than me and have kids Seán’s age tend to discourage them from doing things.
“I teach Sean how to do it safely rather than to tell him it’s a bold thing to do.
“I think older mums would be less willing to climb up on the table with a child or chase around which I’m up for all the time.”