People in developed nations are now having children later in life, preferring to wait until they have a stable job, home and partner. Whereas a few generations ago it was normal to marry in your early to mid-20s and have a young family by the time you were in your thirties, these days people may not have their first child until they are in their 30s or even 40s.
Reproductive anxiety is a more significant stressors for a whole generation of women as a result, with conversations around fertility and reproductive status (peri-menopause and menopause) much more commonplace.
In fact, some women may have their first child when they have already entered Peri-menopause, the stage before the final period of female fertility.
Stages of Female Fertility
Understanding the stages of human female reproduction can help remove some of the anxiety.
There are five stages of female fertility that last approximately seven years each. The first stage is during adolescence, when the menstrual cycle can be erratic and painful and fertility is unpredictable. It is unlikely a girl who has started to mature, and is sexually active, will fall pregnant before her first period but not impossible.
This stage is between approximately ages 11-18. From the late teens on the menstrual cycle will stabilize and this stage from 18 to 26 years is considered by some medical professionals to be the most fertile and healthiest time (physically) for a young woman to have a child. Of course, for some people emotional and financial considerations may make motherhood a challenge at this age.
Women remain fertile during the mid-productive years of 27 to 34 and then later productive years from 35 to 42, though fertility can start to decline from aged thirty onwards. Women looking to create families during these years will need to make a healthy diet and taking care of their body a priority to make sure they maximize their fertility.
Cutting out alcohol and other toxins, such as processed foods (which are high in chemicals and additives), and avoiding the use of plastic drinking bottles and food containers is also important. Plastic containers can give off oestrogen-like particles that have been shown to decrease both male and female fertility, which is made worse if food is microwaved in plastic dishes.
Chinese herbs can be a good support for female fertility during these middle years. (Alcohol can be particularly damaging to sperm, so men also need to take care of their reproductive health more carefully at these ages, as their fertility started to decline rapidly from age 19.)
Peri-menopause is likely to begin in the mid to late forties. During this stage the menstrual cycle can become erratic again, and hormones start to fluctuate inconsistently. Some of the experiences of youth can also recur: moodiness, such as flashes of anger, sadness and anxiety; acne is quite common; coupled with menopausal experiences such as flushes and night sweats; very heavy periods, then very light periods, or missing periods.
Going straight into menopause
Not everyone experiences symptoms during peri-menopause, and not everyone experiences symptoms during menopause. Some women can go from normal fertility to menopausal without transition. This is uncommon, but only about 70 percent of women experience symptoms, so it is a consideration.
The age at which your mother and grandmother went through menopause is considered a good indicator of when you will most likely experience “the change of life”. If you haven’t yet asked, perhaps now is a good time to raise it.
Menopause: The end of fertility
By 50 to 55 years of age most women are either experiencing menopause or have ended their fertile life-cycle. Late-in-life pregnancies are not unheard of, however, with some women in their mid-fifties being shocked to discover that, having missed a period for months, and believing they are through the menopause, they have actually pregnant.
Health checks: rule out the nasties
It’s important to pay close attention to any changes you notice in your body from the ages of 35 onwards, as this is also an increasingly high-risk time for certain serious health conditions, such as breast and ovarian cancer. Don’t mistake it for peri-menopause and menopause and delay seeking medical attention. If you notice changes, best to seek an expert opinion to rule out anything nasty, before putting it down to being a natural part of the female fertility cycle.
Katherine West is a health freak and freelance writer who in 2003 studied for a Diploma of Nutrition. She is also into yoga and pilates.