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Women who postpone having babies until they are older make happier parents, study finds

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We're often told that having children relatively young is good for you because you are more fertile and have more energy as a parent.

But a new wide-ranging study has found that older parents who have their first children aged 35 to 40 years old are actually happier than their younger counterparts. 

Rachel Margolis from Western's Faculty of Social Science and Mikko Myrskylä from the London School of Economics (LSE) studied the experience of thousands of parents recorded in the British Household Panel Survey and the German Socio-Economic Panel. Their data tracked parents in the UK and Germany for 18 years after the birth of their children - far longer than previous studies.

The results, published recently in the journal Demography, show that people aged between the age of 35 and 40 report the most positive response to becoming parents. 

Baby motherhood

Do older mothers make happier parents?

Mums and dads in this category experienced the largest happiness gains around the time of the birth of their first child and stayed at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents.

This is compared to those who started a family between 23 and 34, who experienced a smaller happiness effect that dwindled more quickly. And the youngest group of parents, aged between 18 and 22 years old, showed a declining pattern of happiness that did not increase above base level even in the first year after they became parents. 

The authors believe the findings may explain why more people are now choosing to postpone parenthood until they are older. 

“The fact that among older and better-educated parents, well-being increases with childbearing, but the young and less-educated parents have flat or even downward happiness trajectories, may explain why postponing fertility has become so common,” Dr Margolis said.

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The average age for mums in England and Wales is now 30 years old

The trend towards older motherhood is continuing to gain pace in the UK.

Last year, the average age for a first-time mum in England and Wales hit 30, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. This is compared to 29.8 years in 2012, 27 years in 2004 and 24 years old in 1974. 

Mothers in Britain are now, on average, older than elsewhere in the world when they had their first baby, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has said.

The researchers in this latest study on the topic of parenthood also found that the birth of a first and second child briefly increases their parents’ level of happiness, but welcoming a third child does not.

LSE's Professor Myrskylä said this did not indicate that the third child was unloved, rather that it pointed to other external factors at play.

“The arrival of a third child is not associated with an increase in the parents’ happiness, but this is not to suggest they are any less loved than their older siblings,” she said.

“Instead, this may reflect that the experience of parenthood is less novel and exciting by the time the third child is born or that a larger family puts extra pressure on the parents’ resources.

“Also, the likelihood of a pregnancy being unplanned may increase with the number of children a woman already has - and this brings its own stresses.”

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Older first-time parents experience positive emotions for longer after the birth of their first child

Women in general were found to gain more happiness before and immediately after the birth of a child, and so their happiness dropped more dramatically after that period as a result. But overall the study found no difference between men and women in terms of long-term parental happiness.

A 2012 study from the University of Southampton  found that women in England and France were delaying parenthood in order to spend longer in education and training.

Explaining the rise in the average age of mothers in both countries, Professor Maire Ni Bhrolchain said: “Later childbearing has been a major feature of fertility trends in recent decades, both in Britain and other developed countries.

“A large number of explanations have been suggested for the trend towards later parenthood, but our study is the first to show that the major influencing factor is that people have been staying on longer in education and training.”

Photos: Rex Features

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