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Want a baby? Better start by 30

columns Updated: Jul 28, 2013 11:09 IST

Unless you are a famous actress — like Halle Berry, who’s sporting a baby bump at 46 — the universe and everything in it seem to start conspiring against you having a baby from pretty much the moment you decide you want to be a parent.

That it hits women the hardest is something we all know. First, it’s the advancing age that works against you, with the newest study on age and conception out this month reporting that a woman’s biological clock starts ticking in her late 20s, not her mid-30s as believed earlier. This does not mean that older will not be able to conceive, it just means it might take them a bit longer.

Based on their chances of conception during the peak time in their monthly cycle (a women’s fertile window, which is six days around day 15 in 28-days cycle), researchers divided women into three groups – 19 to 26 years, 27 to 34 years, and 36 to 39 years. In the youngest group, women had 50% chances of conceiving in one menstrual cycle, which fell to 40% among the 27 to 34 year olds. In women in their late 30s, it dropped to less than 30%, and if their partner was five years older, their chances of getting pregnant fell to about 20%.

Not only does fertility levels start to drop off after the age of 30, but overexercise, dieting, stress, eating unhealthily, binge drinking and smoking all have a devastating effect on ovaries. Smoking, drinking alcohol and obesity lower your odds of having a baby, so much so that many countries refuse IVF treatment to obese women and smokers to drive down waiting lists at fertility clinics. Experts insist you quit smoking and drinking and lose weight before attempting even assisted conception, as obesity – body mass index over 30 – lowers conception chances by 27%.

Even your choice of career threatens your parenting dream. Women who work night shifts find it 80% harder to have a baby, showed data presented at European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology this month from a survey of 1 lakh women in Britain. Those worked in nights were 29% more likely to have a miscarriage.

Anaemia and sexually-transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, can lower fertility, while medical conditions, such as fibroids and endometriosis, can make conception impossible. Little wonder that one in six couples experiences difficulty conceiving.

Now it appears men are in the same boat. Men’s sperm quality deteriorates after the age of 35, reports a study released on Saturday. Age also increase the proportion of sperm carrying an X chromosome, which increases the chances of older dads having daughters. Simply put, if you’re over 35, you are more likely to have a daughter than a son.

So far, the jury’s been out on whether the quality and quantity of a man’s sperm deteriorates before 50 years. Epidemiological data, however indicates older men do find it harder to conceive a child — regardless of young their partner is — and as men get older, their partners are at higher risk of losing their baby in a miscarriage. The study also found a decrease in the ratio of Y to X-bearing sperm once men hit 55, though it is not clear why. Older men are also at a slightly increased risk of having children with genetic disorders, showed this study from sperm samples from 5,081 men aged between 16 and 72, reported US researchers in Fertility and Sterility.

Whether it’s 35 or 40, the message from this and other research is that it’s not just women but also men who should be aware of age-related changes in their reproductive system. And if they wish to have children, they shouldn’t leave it too late.