Scientists insist a woman's fertility doesn't always fall off a cliff after 35

One of the UK’s top fertility experts has hit out at older celebrity mothers who ‘mislead’ women into thinking having a baby in their 40s is easy.

In March, BBC presenter Christine Lampard, 42, became the latest in a line of famous faces to give birth in their 40s, following the likes of Nicole Kidman, Madonna and Halle Berry. In 2016, singer Janet Jackson announced she was pregnant just a few weeks before her 50th birthday, and gave birth to a healthy boy in January 2017.

But Dr Geeta Nargund, consultant gynaecologist at London’s St George’s Hospital and a fertility pioneer, has urged women not to delay starting a family in order to avoid a raft of age-related complications.

Women considering starting a family should be warned that their fertility will fall dramatically in their mid 30s

Women considering starting a family should be warned that their fertility will fall dramatically in their mid 30s

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Dr Geeta Nargund, consultant gynaecologist at London’s St George’s Hospital and a fertility pioneer, has urged women not to delay starting a family in order to avoid a raft of age-related complications

Dr Geeta Nargund, consultant gynaecologist at London’s St George’s Hospital and a fertility pioneer, has urged women not to delay starting a family in order to avoid a raft of age-related complications

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday’s Medical Minefield podcast, she says: ‘A woman’s fertility rapidly declines from her mid-30s. It is important young women have this information so they can plan their families with their own eggs.

‘When celebrity mothers say they had a baby in their early 50s or late 40s, they need to spell out if, as is common in older women, they used a donor egg or frozen eggs. Without that, women think it is easy for them to have babies in their mid-40s, and that is not true.’

Dr Nargund’s comments come amid a social-media campaign to scrap ‘offensive’ pregnancy terms which are commonly used by doctors to describe a mother in her least fertile years, such as ‘geriatric mother’ and ‘advanced maternal age’. The initiative, started by the parenting social network Peanut, calls for an entirely new glossary – clinicians should, for example, use ‘reproductive struggles’ instead of saying infertile and refer to ‘family planning’ rather than a biological clock.

When the campaign was launched on Twitter last month, thousands of women pledged their support. Such phrases had made them feel inadequate, anxious or irresponsible for getting pregnant after the age of 25, they wrote. ‘Society has continued to use psychologically harmful terminology about and towards women at a time when they are, arguably, at their most vulnerable,’ said one woman, a doctor.

Others questioned whether there was a link between age and pregnancy problems, at all. Several told of stress-free births in their mid-40s, while others posted a story about a woman in her 70s conceiving naturally. But among the respondents were a handful of medics, arguing that such phrases represented biological fact.

Christine Lampard, pictured, gave birth in March to her first child at the age of 42

Christine Lampard, pictured, gave birth in March to her first child at the age of 42

And with the average age of first-time mothers in England and Wales now at a record high of 30 – and creeping up year on year – some say that if the trend continues, the NHS could soon be flooded with pregnant women suffering age-related complications – not to mention the thousands who are left heartbroken, having realised they have left it too late to become mothers.

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‘It is not the language that is important, but the facts,’ says Dr Nargund, who has seen ‘too many patients’ in their 40s forced to endure the emotional turmoil of fertility treatment.

It is not the first time this issue has sparked fierce debate. In 2015, Dr Nargund was accused of ‘scaremongering’ after writing a letter to the Government in which she demanded fertility education for teenagers and urged women to ‘start trying by the time they are 30’. This would, she suggested, avoid what she referred to as a ‘fertility time-bomb’ that would cripple NHS IVF services.

Prof Nargund said: 'When celebrity mothers say they had a baby in their early 50s or late 40s, they need to spell out if, as is common in older women, they used a donor egg or frozen eggs. Without that, women think it is easy for them to have babies in their mid-40s, and that is not true'

Prof Nargund said: 'When celebrity mothers say they had a baby in their early 50s or late 40s, they need to spell out if, as is common in older women, they used a donor egg or frozen eggs. Without that, women think it is easy for them to have babies in their mid-40s, and that is not true'

According to recent studies, there are more fortysomething first-time mothers than ever before in the UK – four times as many as 20 years ago.

So does Dr Nargund have a point? Let’s start with the biology.

Women are born with roughly two million eggs. But, from puberty, both the number and the quality declines over time.

Gradually, immature eggs – those not released during ovulation – die or are reabsorbed into the body. Meanwhile, those that remain diminish in quality, accumulating DNA errors which, when fertilised, can increase the risk of genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome.

After the age of 30, the rate of decline in both quality and quantity of eggs rapidly speeds up. In a woman’s 20s, there’s a one in three chance of fertilisation per cycle, compared with a one in five chance in their 30s. 

Dr Nick Raine-Fenning, consultant gynaecologist and associate professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Nottingham said the risks of women giving births in their 40s are overstated. He said: 'The majority of women will have few, if any, complications even into their late 40s'

Dr Nick Raine-Fenning, consultant gynaecologist and associate professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Nottingham said the risks of women giving births in their 40s are overstated. He said: 'The majority of women will have few, if any, complications even into their late 40s'

At 40, this drops to roughly one in 20 per cycle. But how does this play out in real life? Much of the commonly cited statistics about female fertility date back to data from the 1700s on birth rates among church-going parents in France. 

It was seen as uniquely reliable because the study was not skewed by birth control – many modern studies are thought to be complicated by women’s use of contraception throughout their lives, which could impact fertility.

It showed that 30 per cent of women over 35 who’d been trying for more than a year didn’t get pregnant, compared with less than 20 per cent of those in their late 20s and early 30s. The researchers noted that the steepest decline was seen after the age of 35.

But since then, studies have failed to confirm these findings.

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