A one-in-100 chance of a Down syndrome baby, one-third odds of a miscarriage and two-fold risk of stillbirth.
By medical standards, the risks of having a child at the age of 40 are unnerving enough to put a damper on any sizzling baby-making plans. But more older mums are thumbing their noses at the gloomy statistics.
Think 40-something actresses like Halle Berry and Fann Wong, both of whom defied statistical odds and delivered healthy babies.
Then, there’s 50-year-old singer Janet Jackson, who confirmed her first pregnancy and showed off her baby bump in October this year.
In fact, the number of women conceiving in their 40s has doubled over the past three decades in Singapore. Last year, there were about nine births for every 1,000 women aged 40 to 44, compared to just 4.5 in 1985, according to Singapore Department of Statistics figures.
In contrast, those delivering between 25 and 29 years old – considered the optimum age for motherhood – have halved in the last 30 years.
But is age just a number when it comes to having babies?
To a certain extent, yes. Advances in artificial reproductive techniques like in vitro fertilisation (IVF) have made it possible for couples to have babies later in life, especially for those with fertility problems, says Dr Tan Eng Loy, consultant at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
That’s because IVF boosts a woman’s chances of conceiving, regardless of her age, shares Dr Yeong Cheng Toh, consultant gynaecologist and reproductive endocrinologist at Virtus Fertility Centre Singapore.
Improvements in screening methods and better ultrasound equipment also mean that abnormalities and birth defects in unborn babies are detected more accurately early in pregnancy, according to the doctors.
A Finnish study has found that age, by itself, does not pose significant pregnancy and childbirth risks for an older mum over 35.
But her risk of complications such as pre-term birth, a small baby and stillbirth increases dramatically if she smokes, is overweight or obese, or has pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes, according to the study published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine.
What about recovery after birth? Well, that depends on the woman’s health before pregnancy, Dr Tan says.
If an older mum is healthy and fit, she may have better stamina and recover from labour faster than a younger mum who is less fit or has other medical conditions, he says.
But even older mums with medical issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, now have a better chance of enjoying a smooth pregnancy, thanks to advances in antenatal care.
For instance, SGH conducts high-risk pregnancy clinics thrice weekly to ensure that mothers are well-looked after.
Tick tock, the biological clock
Still, there are limits as to what medical science can do. It cannot change the fact that a woman’s fertility takes a nosedive after the age of 35, making it harder for her to become pregnant, the doctors point out.
“The media has highlighted many older women who have had successful pregnancies. But when it comes to biological advantage, there is a huge difference between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old woman,” Dr Yeong says. A woman in her 40s has an approximately one-in-six chance of conceiving naturally with every cycle, he notes.
If and when she gets pregnant, she also faces a higher risk of miscarriage, Dr Tan adds.
Age is also the most important factor in determining whether fertility treatments like IVF work out successfully, Dr Yeong says.
A woman below the age of 35 has a 60 to 70 per cent chance of becoming pregnant through IVF, but this chance falls to just 20 to 25 per cent for those above 40.
While today’s older mums may have medical advances on their side, the risks should not be downplayed. Take the odds of having a baby with Down syndrome, for instance: a 40-year-old mum’s risk is 10 times higher than if she were under the age of 30.
“Although medical advancements have helped us to detect unborn Down syndrome babies more accurately, very little can be done to prevent them, other than conceiving at a much younger age,” Dr Tan says.
The price of being an older mum
Because they may require more screening tests and detailed scans, mums who wish to expand their families in their 40s should think about the expenses, financial services manager Fong Yong Hui says.
Take non-invasive prenatal testing – a new test that screens for Down syndrome – for example. Singapore mums taking the test at SGH can expect to pay a subsidised rate of around $1,000. They cannot use their Medisave for it, Dr Tan explains.
They may also need to be induced closer their due date – it is recommended that they deliver their babies before 40 weeks to lower the possibility of a stillbirth. “All of the above are likely to translate to increased costs,” he adds.
Delaying motherhood also means that they will be close to retirement age by the time their kids require tertiary education, Yong Hui says.
With the estimated cost of raising a kid in Singapore ranging from $200,000 to $1 million, juggling Junior’s education funds and preparing for retirement concurrently can be a challenge.
Although older mums are often deemed more financially secure, she points out that this may not be true.
“Ultimately, it boils down to the individual’s financial habits. A 40-year-old woman who chose to live it up during her younger days may not be more financially secure than a younger mum who has been diligently saving since her early 20s,” Yong Hui says.
“If you wish to have children later, it is important that you start saving as early as possible.”