Greater risk in being an older or single mother

Older women, single women and women who have children through assisted reproduction run a greater risk of complications in pregnancy and higher risk of illness generally. Their children are also more likely to be diagnosed with various conditions early on in life. Malin Lindell Pettersson has taken a closer look at the health of these groups in her PhD dissertation.

Close-up of woman after forties touching her pregnant belly.More women aged 40 and older are giving birth. Photo credit KatarzynaBialasiewicz More and more people are waiting until they are older to start families. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that more women aged 40 and older are giving birth. Since 2016, it is possible for single mothers in Sweden to have children via assisted reproduction with donated sperm – so-called solo mothers. Being older during pregnancy increases the risk of complications. Being a single parent and, for the child, growing up with a single parent, may also be associated with stress and reduced wellbeing.

During her PhD, the psychologist Malin Lindell Petterson has taken a closer look at pregnancy and childbirth in older women. She has also examined whether marital status and the process of becoming a parent (through infertility treatment or spontaneous pregnancy) are associated with different pregnancy and childbirth outcomes, as well as the likelihood of the child or the woman receiving special diagnoses.

In her studies, she has found that marital status of the woman in question can have an effect. The researchers have divided the family types into two groups based on information about their marital status in the National Medical Birth Register. In one study, she and her colleagues have found that single mothers have significantly higher risk of receiving a special diagnosis compared to cohabiting women, regardless of age. This was a surprise to Malin Lindell Petterson.Malin Lindell Pettersson.Malin Lindell Pettersson. Photo credit Magnus Johansson

“I also think it is surprising that children of single mothers receive more psychological diagnoses early on, up until the age of five, compared to children with cohabiting parents”, she says. She has recently defended her dissertation at Linköping University, and currently works as a psychologist at the University Hospitals women’s clinic.

That the women in the register studies were single mothers in the beginning of their pregnancies may have depended on several reasons. Malin Lindell Pettersson says that the starting position for single mothers can have a great effect on pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood. There is a difference in starting positions between women who have unplanned pregnancies. For example, between those who have split up with their partners or lose their partners early during pregnancy, and those who themselves choose to become pregnant and become single mothers.

In 2019, a prospective cohort study was begun, led by the researchers Evangelia Elenis, Gunilla Sydsjö and Agneta Skoog Svanberg. In this study, women who planned to be single mothers – so-called solo mothers who have children through assisted reproduction, were compared with cohabiting women in heterosexual relationships who become pregnant through in vitro fertilisation, IVF treatment. Having good support around oneself when becoming a single parent is of great significance for ones health. In this study, the mothers who planned to be single mothers said that they had good support, mainly from friends and their parents.

“Given the risks associated with being a child of a single parent, it is even more important to research the needs of these women and follow up on how it goes for them, in order to get as good results as possible. We are going to follow the women and their children for at least a couple of years. This kind of family, consisting of voluntarily single mothers, has probably become more common now that single women can have children through sperm donation here in Sweden, and no longer need to organise it themselves or go abroad”, says Malin Lindell Petterson.

There can also be positive aspects of becoming a parent when one is older. Older people may be in a better position economically, may be more established on the work and property markets, may have a larger social network, and may have achieved greater personal maturity. There are also studies indicating that the sense of happiness one feels after becoming a parent lasts longer in older people than in younger new parents.

Malin Lindell Petterson completed her doctoral thesis at Linköping University on 11 March 2022.

Translation by Benjamin Davies

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Fertility drops

“It is important to spread information to the public about the risks of waiting to have children.”

“Many have insufficient knowledge about how fertility reduces with age”, says Malin Lindell Petterson. “Maybe people believe that they can become pregnant in the natural way up to a much higher age than they actually can, and believe that fertility treatments can compensate for infertility to a greater extent than is actually possible. Fertility drops around the age of 32, and even more so after the age of 35. The risk of deformation and chromosome deviation in the child is also higher for older women.”