Are you ever ‘really ready’ to have a baby? Research can help you know

Last year I turned 31, and ever since I have been calculating if there is a right time to have a child. Well-meaning family members and friends tell you there is no "right" time – “you just have to do it”.

It no doubt helps when you have love –  but what about your health, career aspirations and finances? Is there a magic number you need to have in the bank or the right time you can dip outside of the workforce and not be penalised?

“Just do it” is well and good; research shows there are measurable factors that can help you decide when the right time to start a family is.

The average age for Australians to marry is 30 and the age of first-time parents is around age 31, according to Anne Hollonds, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. These life milestones have shifted from the late 20s as, for many people, “employment and income are not secure, housing prices have gone up, and 50 per cent of young men in the capital cities are still living at home, with just under that for women.".

A bit of research indicates that there are, indeed, ways to gauge if the time is right, for you.

Health and lifestyle

According to Dr Karin Hammarberg, senior research officer at the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, a woman in her mid-20s has a 25 per cent of falling pregnant each month, which drops to the teens in the 30s, and to 10 per cent past age 37.

Being in a stable relationship, eating healthily, exercising, not binge drinking and taking drugs – all of that matters.

“We feel younger, look younger and live longer, and we think that makes us fertile for longer. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Age at menopause has not changed – we are still very much at the mercy of our biology,” she says.

Research also shows that the health and wellbeing of both mother and father prior to the child’s conception affect the quality of the embryo.

Dr Tim Moore, a developmental psychologist at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and the lead author of The First Thousands Days paper (which looks at the period of development from conception to age two) says “your lifestyle and personal circumstances before you conceive a child contribute to the life course of your child”.

“Being in a stable relationship, eating healthily, exercising, not binge drinking and taking drugs – all of that matters,” he says.

What the mother experiences during pregnancy – high levels of stress, mental health problems and more – is absorbed by the foetus, which uses cues provided by their mother’s physical and mental states to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into, and adapts accordingly.

“Yet now we know that all that carries through to the foetus, and that even experiences become biologically embedded. The foetus senses from the signals of the mother what environment they’re going to be born into, and if it’s a stressful environment, then the foetus changes its reactivity levels to become more vigilant.

“If the father is overweight, smokes, or works in a toxic environment, that will affect the integrity of the sperm and therefore shape the foetus,” he says.


As someone who has grown up being told women can do anything, being on the precipice of starting a family while knowing the risks involved for my career is the most frightening part. Emma Walsh, founder and CEO of Parents At Work, an organisation which providers work and family education and policy advice to workplaces and individuals, advocates for women to do serious career forward-planning before having their first baby.

Ms Walsh – who had twins at the age of 31, and a third child a few years later – was already planning her future in her late 20s.

“I started future-proofing my career early, thinking about issues such as: what will be the impact of me taking time out? What kind of flexibility will I need? Will my employer be adaptable to that? What's likely to happen based on what I see role-modelled around me in the workplace?” she says.

A 2016 Danish study found that women of all ages take a dramatic short-term hit to their earnings after having their first child. But it also showed that women who had their first child at age 31 or older earned more over their careers than women who had children at a younger age — or women who did not have children at all.

Being on the precipice of starting a family while knowing the risks involved for my career is the most frightening part.

The gains were especially significant for university-educated women who had children between the ages of 31 and 34;- they earned, on average, 13 per cent more over the course of their life than university-educated women who did not have children.

It seems that the younger the mother is, “the more she has to forgo in terms of opportunity to accumulate experience and human capital in the labour market,'' the researchers point out. To compound the disadvantage, younger mothers may also self-select into occupations seen as more “mother-friendly”, such as public sector roles, childcare and teaching, which tend to pay less.

According to Anne Hollonds, a vital choice for women planning children and a career is to team up with a partner who wants to be part of a true parenting team.

“Partner choice is the key factor in balancing work and family – unless they’re prepared to be part of your team to make it work, you’re going to be in big trouble,” she says. Emma Walsh agrees: “The earlier the father gets involved and takes parental leave, the more positive impact on maternal wages," she says.


Having a baby is a life-altering event, and one which will ultimately affect your finances.  Millennials are said to become the first generation poorer than the one before them, and Daniel Woodman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne and an expert young people’s lives, says they are hitting life milestones including parenthood later.

"Overall, my research shows that your average young person is actually taking longer to reach the markers of job security and success than ever before,” he says. Apart from being able to take the hit to your household budget associated with adding a baby, people considering taking the plunge should also factor in the cost of childcare (Australians pay some of the highest prices for it in the world).

Curious to know how much child care would cost in inner-suburban Melbourne, I looked up my local council-run centres to find rates of $129.50 per day. Multiply that by five days a week for a full-time worker, and you’re looking at $647.5. The Australian minimum wage is in Australia is $740.8 (gross).

While there is no “optimum” salary a mother or couple must earn before they have a child, Dr Moore says there are certain elements that are needed in order for a child to grow up feeling safe and well-adjusted.

“What you need is secure housing, good social support, to be free of any food insecurity, a healthy environment, access to early childhood services, green parklands, environments free from toxins and access to affordable, nutritious foods," he says. And savings aren't a bad idea.

Are you ever really 'ready'?

While arranging the above circumstances to give you the best chance of absorbing parenthood (almost) seamlessly may seem daunting, Dr Moore assures me that biologically, “we change in ways which make us ready for the whole business”.

“There are a whole series of biological processes that occur as a part of pregnancy and birth that push you in the right direction”.

“Having a baby is most often an extraordinary, life-changing event for the parents because of the way their neuro-biological system gears them to respond to the baby. You have biology to guide you,” he says.

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