These are questions we hear regularly from dejected but hopeful intended parents: Did I wait too long? Is it still in the cards for me? Is it ever too late to have a baby?
Thanks to technology plus the generosity of donors and surrogates, the answer to the final question is no – it’s never completely too late. But first, it’s important to take a look at the basics behind the biological clock and what implication it actually has on our fertility.
While there is nothing physical ticking inside your body preparing to chime when it’s time to have a baby, there is an innate mechanism deep in the brain that controls physiological things like sleep, growth, and reproduction. Circadian rhythm, for example, is part of this clock and helps your body adjust accordingly to its surroundings. It can also, according to some, cause a hormonal urge for parenthood. A 2011 study showed that both women and men can experience a “sudden, visceral and almost irresistible urge to have a baby.”
In addition to helping your body recover from jet lag, the biological clock can indicate when it’s time to start planning for a pregnancy. As the body ages, so do a woman’s eggs. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that a 30-year-old woman has about a 20 percent chance of conceiving each month; a 40-year-old woman’s chances are closer to 5 percent. A diminishing ovarian reserve coupled with more genetic issues often prevent a woman from getting – and staying – pregnant.
In the past, it was the norm for women as young as their late teens to start having children. Biologically, the best time is late teens to early twenties, according to John Mirowsky, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “Oocytes are fresh and the body’s reproductive and other systems are at a youthful peak.”
However, the study showed a variety of ages that could be considered “best” to have a baby – for example, the optimum age at first birth in regards to the mother’s long-term physical well-being was 31 years old. The best age for the mother’s long-term health and mortality was 34. Overall, Mirowsky said, women can “reasonably expect optimal health outcomes from delaying motherhood into their thirties.”
Still, other science shows that 35 is the age at which fertility begins to sharply decline. A woman who has unsuccessfully tried to conceive for a year or more under the age of 35, but for just 6 months if over the age of 35, should meet with a reproductive endocrinologist to determine what, if any, support should be utilized.
It’s also true that some fertility clinics will work with a patient to retrieve eggs for her own IVF transfer into her early 40s. This is typical with the stipulation that the embryos undergo comprehensive chromosomal screening or preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) to determine their quality before implantation. When it comes to working with an egg donor, though, the age range is much more conservative; it’s important to mitigate as many risks as possible – including the quality and quantity of the eggs.
It’s a long-held belief that men can successfully have children at just about any age. And while their fertility window is much wider than a woman’s, sperm is most fertile before the age of 40. Male fertility starts an overall decline at 40; the volume of a man’s semen and sperm motility decreases continually between the ages of 20 and 80. Not only that, but the quality of the sperm that is available begins to deteriorate too; the risk of miscarriage is twice as high for women whose male partner is over 45 than for those whose partners are under 25.
While you can’t ultimately outsmart your biological clock, it’s still possible to have a baby in spite of it. Forgoing your own gametes, be it eggs, sperm, or both, and utilizing a donor is becoming more and more common amongst hopeful parents looking for the best odds of having a family. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, donor-egg IVF has a 52 percent success rate – upward of 75 percent at top clinics – making it the most successful of any fertility treatment.
Still, others are taking chances with new technology such as egg freezing. It is often touted as fertility “insurance” for women who aren’t ready to create embryos with a partner just yet. While the practice has quickly gained in popularity, success rates remain inconsistent and it is not a guarantee of motherhood. Another approach to fertility preservation is tissue freezing. At this stage, the process is generally considered experimental with a recent study showing that 37 percent of women who tried ovarian tissue freezing were able to successfully conceive.
If you think egg donation might be your best route to parenthood, we are here to support you every step of the way!