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USA TODAY, August 13, 2009

Women wait to start families; In USA, teen births lower average age of first births

By Sharon Jayson

Women in the USA and around the world are waiting longer to start families, shows a new federal report released Wednesday. The average age of new moms was 25 in the USA and 29 in other developed countries such as Japan and Switzerland, it says.

The report, from the National Center for Health Statistics, shows that on average, new U.S. moms were the youngest of 14 countries reviewed, for both years studied: 21.4 in 1970 and 25.0 in 2006.

The reason the average age is younger in the USA than those other countries? The USA's teen birth rate is much higher, says report co-author T.J. Mathews.

"If our teen birth rate would decline to rates of the other countries, then our average age at first birth would increase to similar territory," he says. "Overall, we're being driven by all those births to teens."

Many moms over 35

Data from the United Nations Demographic Yearbook for 2006 shows that the U.S. teen birth rate was more than eight times higher than in Japan, seven times higher than in Denmark and Sweden, and more than three times as high as in Canada. Those statistics, compiled by the United Nations Statistics Division, are based on annual questionnaires to more than 230 national statistical offices worldwide.

The new U.S. federal analysis also found:

*The average age of moms at first birth increased in all U.S. states and the District of Columbia between 1970 and 2006. In 2006, Massachusetts had the highest average mothers' age at first birth, 27.7 years, and Mississippi had the lowest, 22.6 years.

*Between 1990 and 2006, the average age increased for all racial and ethnic groups.

*The proportion of first births among women age 35 and older increased from one out of 100 in 1970 to out out of 12 in 2006.

*21% of first births were to teen mothers in 2006, down from 36% in 1970.

"Most people in the U.S. still have babies in their 20s," says fertility researcher S. Philip Morgan of Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The mean age of childbearing at 25 is late but not that late."

The report also found that among racial and ethnic groups in 2006, the oldest average age at first birth (28.5 years) was to Asian or Pacific Islander women and the youngest (21.9 years) was to Alaska Native women.

For white women, the average age for first-time mothers, 26, is a year older than the average for the U.S. population. For black women, the average age at first birth was 22.7 years; it was 23.1 years among Hispanics.

Longevity a factor

The report noted dramatic increases in the average age during the 1970s and 1980s and a less dramatic but steady rise since.

There are many reasons for the age increase since 1970, says Elizabeth Gregory, director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Houston.

The availability of the birth control pill (which arrived in the 1960s) had immediate repercussions on the birth rate overall and allowed people to plan their families, she says. Also, greater longevity is making a difference.

"Now people are living longer and can start families later and expect to be around to take care of them," she says.

For her 2008 book Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, Gregory interviewed 113 moms who had first children later in life. She says many cited getting their education and getting established at work as reasons to postpone motherhood.

"They had to get to the point where they were making a decent salary and had the clout to negotiate a family-friendly schedule and not lose their seniority," says Gregory, 51, who had her first child at 39 and adopted a second daughter at age 48.

Babies, aging parents

Robin Gorman Newman is co-founder of Motherhood Later ... Than Sooner, an international support group to help mothers 35 and older.

Newman, 49, of Great Neck, N.Y., has a 6-year-old son. She says that whether to have another child is a real issue for older parents, who worry about their only child faced with solo caretaking as older parents age.

"I hear guilt and concern about that," she says. "Younger parents probably don't think at all about them being seniors. ... There is a very acute awareness of that -- much more so than a younger parent would have."

Morgan notes that for an average woman in healthy condition who's trying to get pregnant, it could take about four months. Older women may take longer, he says. "We are seeing older mothers have one child.

"If they want to have a second kid in the 2- to 4-year window, older mothers probably take longer to get pregnant."

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