New research suggests that mothers who wait to have their first child between the ages of 25 and 35 have better health at 40 than women who had their first baby in their teens or early 20s. The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, also challenges the common belief that it is better to wait until young adulthood to have a first child.
“We’ve had all this focus on the bad effects of teen childbearing and never really asked what happens if these teens waited to early adulthood,” lead author Kristi Williams, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, said in a journal news release.
“The assumption has been that ‘of course, it is better to wait.’ But at least when it comes to the later health of the mother, that isn’t necessarily true,” Williams added.
For the study, Williams and her colleagues used data from 3,348 women who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979. The women in the study had their first child between ages 15 and 35 and were followed from 1979 through 2008. As part of the study, they rated their own health at age 40 on a scale from poor to excellent.
The researchers compared the health of women who had their first baby between ages 15 and 19, 20 and 24, and 25 and 35. Findings showed that the women who had their first child at ages 25 to 35, reported better health at age 40 than the two younger groups. However, there was no significant difference in midlife health for women with teen births compared to those who waited to have their babies at ages 20 to 24.
“Ours is the first U.S. study to find that having your first child in young adulthood is associated with worse self-assessed health decades later for white and black women, when compared to those who wait until they are over 24,” Williams said.
In general, the study showed that women who were married when they had their first child reported better health at 40 than women who were single when they had their first birth. But the research team was surprised to find that black women who never married after having a first child outside of marriage had better self-reported health at 40 than those who did marry later.
The study authors could not fully explain why this group fared better remaining single, but noted that their findings suggest that public policies encouraging marriage among single mothers may have some unintended negative consequences.
“Most studies indicate that marriage promotion efforts have been unsuccessful in increasing marriage rates. Our findings suggest that may be a good thing, at least for black women’s health,” Williams said.
Looking at their overall findings, the team noted that it was worrisome that around one-third of first births in the United States occur among women aged 20 to 24, and mostly among single mothers. And while the proportion of black women having a teen birth has declined significantly in recent years, 63 percent of all first births to black women occur to those under the age of 24.
“We still need to be concerned that women who are having births in their early 20s may face more health challenges as they reach middle age than those who wait longer,” Williams said.