By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A06
More children are born to women older than 35 than to teenagers, a change born of medical science, later marriages and evolving attitudes about motherhood, according to a new study released Thursday.
The Pew Research Center, citing census and government health statistics, said the trend toward mothers who are older and better educated cuts across all ethnicities in the United States.
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of births to mothers older than 35 leapt from 368,000 to 603,000. One in seven babies -- or 14 percent of a total of about 4 million births -- were born to older mothers in 2008. Almost one in four were first-time mothers. The vast majority, 71 percent, had at least some college education before giving birth.
By contrast, births to women younger than 20 declined from 533,000 in 1990 to 441,000 in 2008, or one in 10 babies. The teenage birthrate has declined steadily since 1990, except for a spike in 2006 and 2007.
The statistics reflect far-reaching changes for women in society, affecting their decisions on when to marry and start families. The average age for marriage has been rising, as has the share of women who have attended college. Women with more education often delay marriage and childbearing while they complete their schooling and establish careers.
The average age at which women have their first child is 25, a year older than in 1990.
"It's clear that young adult transitions are being postponed," said Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at UCLA. "Children born to highly educated mothers increasingly are born later in life. The mothers are usually married, and they have a much higher chance of raising children in a stable marriage that lasts through a child's childhood."
The delay in getting married also helps explain two seemingly contradictory trends. The number of unwed mothers has risen sharply in the United States, so that about four out of every 10 births are to unmarried women, which includes most births to women in their early 20s. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of women who have never had children.
Experts say some of that may be by choice, and some of it is timing.
"We're trained to think science can solve all fertility problems," said Wendy Manning, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, who teaches a class in fertility and family planning. "In fact, there are quite a few limitations."
The Pew report included a survey on American attitudes toward parenthood that suggests there is less stigma attached to older mothers than once was common. About one in three disapproved of women having babies after age 40, undergoing fertility treatment or remaining childless; the rest said those were good things or made no difference to society.
Maria Bachman, 42, who runs the Web site MothersOver35.com from her home outside Tucson, said actresses like Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, who are older mothers, have helped create a positive image of women who have children at the onset of middle age.
"When they're put on the cover of magazines, they're showing it's not too late to be an older mom," said Bachman, who was 37 when she had her first child and 40 when she had her second. "In fact, older moms are considered sexy."
When asked why they decided to have their first child, 87 percent of the parents in the Pew survey answered, "The joy of having children." But nearly half said, "There wasn't a reason. It just happened."