December 28, 2005
Healthy Aging: The 30s — And Baby Makes Three
As women age, they must take extra care to ensure a healthy pregnancy
Second part of five-part series
In 1970, the average American woman was 21.4 years old when she gave birth to her first child. By 2000, that figure had climbed to 25, according to federal statistics.
The increase in age reflects the fact that many couples today are postponing childrearing until their 30s and 40s.
But as women age, they must take extra care to ensure a healthy pregnancy, experts say.
"That means, first and foremost, getting proper prenatal care," said Dr. Thomas Weida, a spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians.
"In some cases, experts are even advocating a preconception visit -- either to the family doctor or an ob-gyn, to look for any risk factors that might complicate pregnancy, things like smoking, drinking, drug use," he said. Every woman knows -- or should know -- that drinking, smoking and pregnancy don't mix, but studies show that a significant percentage of women still ignore these warnings.
Fertility in women begins a gradual decline in the mid-30s, Weida said, while men's fertility remains stable until much later in life. Once conception has occurred, regular visits to the doctor can reassure moms- and dads-to-be that all's well.
"There's regular ultrasound, of course, as well as tests for certain genetic defects," said Weida, who is also a professor of family and community medicine at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine in Hershey. "As women get older -- say, from 35 into their 40s -- you also have the possibility of doing amniocentesis to look for defects."
Weida always advises women to take a multivitamin during their pregnancy, as well as folic acid, which protects against severe neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Then there's delivery. The most common, serious complication is preeclampsia, where the mother's blood pressure suddenly soars. "It's tough to predict this, because you can get preeclampsia and be of average weight and never have had high blood pressure," Weida said. "Certainly though, if you do have medical problems such as diabetes, that puts you at slightly higher risk. Those things are usually looked for during prenatal visits," he said.
A healthy delivery means a newborn needing lots of nourishment to grow. "Experts now agree that breast-feeding is the 'formula' of choice," Weida said, with hundreds of studies confirming breast milk's power in speeding development and boosting infant immune systems. "During this period, moms obviously need to hydrate themselves and keep up their nutrition," he added. "So, sometimes I'll continue vitamin supplements after delivery, too."
New moms and those who love them also need to be on the lookout for postpartum depression. "It's all about duration and intensity," Weida said. Short-term "blues" shouldn't be of great concern, "but severe depression that goes on for a couple weeks -- that's certainly an issue that needs to be looked at," he said.
And what about Dad? According to Weida, his role in this family drama is basically as key supporting player -- with Mom and Baby the stars. "As most new fathers know, this means a lot of getting up at night," he said.
To learn more about breast-feeding, visit the March of Dimes.
To read part one, click here.