How Does Parental Age Influence Child Development?

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Popular wisdom suggests that younger parents may have more energy to keep up with young children while older parents have more resources and experience to care for kids. Could your age as a parent have an impact on how your kids develop, and is there really an ideal age to have kids in order to have the best conditions for child development?

Research suggests that there are potential benefits as well as drawbacks to having kids at different age periods in your life.

Parenting Ages Are Increasing

Throughout the industrialized world, there has been a decrease in family size and delay in childbearing age. Where the average maternal age of first birth was 21.4 in 1970, it has now gone up to 25.

While it may seem like only a small delay, an increase in parental age might have consequences for the health and well-being of both parents and their offspring. For this reason, the potential implications of delayed childbearing have come under scrutiny by both doctors and social researchers. While it seems like a relatively small number, some research has suggested that this delay in having kids might have an impact on development and health outcomes.

While the focus is often on the link between advanced maternal age and birth defects, some worrying research has suggested declines in neurocognitive outcomes among U.S. children associated with older paternal age. A 2009 study suggested that having an older father was associated with subtle impairments in neurocognitive outcomes during both infancy and childhood.

The researchers reanalyzed data on nearly 56,000 children who were given a variety of tests of cognitive abilities at age 8 months, 4 years, and 7 years. These tests looked at thinking abilities including reasoning, memory, learning, concentration, understanding, speaking, and reading. Some tests of motors skills were also conducted.

What the researchers discovered was that children with older fathers had lower scores on all tests except for those of motor skills and that the older the father was, the stronger the link between paternal age and low cognitive test scores. By contrast, children with older mothers were more likely to have higher scores on tests of cognitive ability.

While it has long been believed that men could continue fathering children well into old age with no real consequences on their children's health, more recent research suggests that this simply may not be true. Another study published in the journal Nature suggested that a certain percentage of the increase in autism is linked to older fathers.

However, while higher paternal age is linked to health effects in children and paternal age has increased in recent decades, researchers do not believe that it represents a major public health concern.

What about the impact of maternal age on child health outcomes? The most obvious biological concern is that increased maternal age is associated birth defects, an increased risk of premature birth, and low infant birth weight.

However, studies also suggest that there may be other health concerns associated with young motherhood as well.

One large-scale study found that it was young mothers under the age of 25 that had children with worse health outcomes in terms of height, obesity, self-rated health, and diagnosed health conditions.

The Psychological Impact of Parenting Age

There are clear biological concerns associated with parental age and the impact on child health, but what about the mental impact of parenting at different ages? There have been a few studies that have looked at the psychological impact of delayed childbearing on parents and their children.

One study, for example, found that later parenthood achieved via assisted reproductive technology was not associated with negative impacts on child well-being.

While there were differences between younger and older mothers on various factors, the researchers found that there were no clear psychosocial advantages for any maternal age group in terms of the effects on child well-being. The study also found that older mothers tended to have a higher educational status, higher income, and were less likely to engage in risky behaviors during pregnancy.

But what about the potential impact of age on parental health?

Possible Long Term Consequences

Research increasingly suggests that the age at which people first become parents may actually have long-term health consequences. For example, women who become mothers during their late teens and early 20s have a higher rate of mortality than those who become parents later.

Other studies have suggested that having a first child around age 22 or 23 has a detrimental effect on health during later life. This early parenthood has also been linked to higher rates of depression. One study suggested that between 28 and 48 percent of adolescent mothers suffered from depression.

Mixed Findings on the Impact on a Parents Mental Health

Findings related to the effects of later parenting on mental health tend to be mixed. Some show a link between increased maternal age and detrimental effects on health later in life. Some research also indicates a link between first births after age 35 and increases in depression.

However, becoming a parent later in life tends to allow women to attain higher levels of education, establish a long-term relationship, and achieve greater financial security. Adding to this complicated mix is the fact that later motherhood is associated with increased medical complications such as pre-eclampsia, hypertension, and gestational diabetes, some of which may have long lasting health consequences.

What Do Parents Have to Say?

Beyond the potential biological ramifications of having kids at an older age, what effect might age have on parenting styles?

One small study found that among parents who had their first child after the age of 40, most believed that the best time to become a parent was five to 10 years earlier. Interestingly, most of the over-40 parents still maintained that being an older parent had more advantages than disadvantages. Still, 80 percent of the mothers and 70 percent of the fathers said that the optimal age to have children was in the 30s.

One caveat—the study was small (including just 107 participants) and lacked much diversity (most were married and white with above average incomes). The researchers suggest that additional research with a larger and more diverse sample might be more reflective of what exists in the larger population.

So why did so many of the older parents surveyed feel that being older made them better parents? Most suggested that the greatest advantage was being more emotionally prepared to be a parent. Some suggested that being older made them more self-aware, confident, resilient, self-actualized, better able to offer support, and more capable of communicating with a child.

“I know that I'm way more self-aware than I was 20 years ago. I feel like I'm in a better position to communicate better with my child and help them more in life and I understand how to be a supportive, encouraging parent,” explained one of the fathers who took part in the study.

A few other advantages cited by the parents who took part in the study included having greater career success, financial security, stronger social relationships, more workplace flexibility, and more time.

This is not to say that being an older parent is all sunshine and roses. Being an older parent had its advantages, some of these participants suggested, but there were also notable pitfalls. Some parents suggested that if they could have, they would have had their children sometime in their 30s. Why?

More Energy

The most commonly cited reason was that they felt they would have more physical energy to be a parent. Older parents may feel that they do not have the energy to keep up with their always-on-the-go kids.

Fertility and Lifespan Concerns

Some parents also cited difficulties with conceiving, worries about living long enough to raise their children, and concerns over having fewer children than they wanted as major downsides to becoming an older parent.

The 30s Seem Like the Best Compromise

For many respondents, the 30s represented a sort of middle-ground between the potential pitfalls and benefits of early versus later parenting.

"Parenting in their 30s was imagined to reflect a compromise that maximized the financial and emotional advantages of later parenting while minimizing the risks of age-related infertility, smaller-than-desired family sizes, lack of energy, less lifetime spent with their children, and the potential for age-related stigma," the study's authors wrote.

What About Parental Age and Child Behavior?

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers assessed data collected on more than 15,000 sets of twins. Developmental patterns related to social skills including conduct, peer problems, and social skills were examined. The researchers also compared the impact of parental age against genetic and environmental factors.

What the researchers discovered was that fathers on either end of the age spectrum, either very young or very old, at the time of conception were linked to differing patterns of social development in their children. Children born to fathers under 25 or over 51 tended to show more prosocial behaviors early in development, yet then lagged behind their peers born to middle-aged fathers by the time they reached their teens. Analysis of the data further revealed that most of these differences could be linked to genetic factors rather than environmental ones.

"Our results reveal several important aspects of how paternal age at conception may affect offspring," explained Dr. Magdalena Janecka, the study's lead author. "We observed those effects in the general population, which suggests children born to very young or older fathers may find social situations more challenging, even if they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism. Further, the increased importance of genetic factors observed in the offspring of older, but not very young fathers, suggests that there could be different mechanisms behind the effects at these two extremes of paternal age. Although the resulting behavioral profiles in their offspring were similar, the causes could be vastly different."

A Word From Verywell

So what's the consensus on the best age to be a parent? Clearly, many factors go into shaping how children develop over the course of birth to adulthood, but parenting is one of the most primary and prevalent influences. Becoming a parent at any age has its own set of benefits and challenges, and factors that are unique to each parent's situation and background also play critical roles.

What the research does suggest is that becoming a parent at either the extreme end of the childbearing years, in the early 20s or well into the 40s, may present the greatest number of downsides in terms of both biological and psychosocial risk. There are trends suggesting that young parents may have more energy to keep up with busy children, but their offspring may experience delayed social development and young parents may be more prone to depression. Older parents may have the benefit of experience and knowledge, but they may also face some increased risks including potential subtle neurocognitive delays in their kids. 

No matter what age you choose to become a parent, being aware of the potential challenges you might face might help you be better prepared to tackle the many trials and rewards that come with having children. Such knowledge can also help you maximize the benefits of your age, such as having more experience as an older parent or more energy as a young parent, while taking steps to overcome any weaknesses that might influence your parenting style and the healthy development of your children.

Sources:

Boivin, J et al. Associations between maternal older age, family environment and parent and child wellbeing in families using assisted reproductive techniques to conceive. Soc Sci Med. 2009;68(11);1948-1955.

Mac Dougall, K, Beyene, Y, & Nachtigall, RD. 'Inconvenient biology:' Advantages and disadvantages of first-time parenting after age 40 using in vitro fertilization. Hum Reprod. 2012;27(4):1058-1065.

Myrskyla, M & Fenelon, A. Maternal age and offspring adult health: Evidence from the health and retirement study. Demography. 2012;49(4): 10.1007/s13524-012-0132-x.

Nybo Anderson, AM & Urhoj, SK. Is advanced paternal age a health risk for the offspring? Fertility and Sterility. 2017;107(2);312-318.

Sasha, S, Barnett, AG, Foldi, C, Burne, TH, Eyles, DW, Buka, Sl, & McGrath, JJ. Advanced paternal age is associated with impaired neurocognitive outcomes during infancy and childhood. PLOSMedicine.  2009;https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000040.

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