BBC News

Older fathers: what's behind the trend?

image captionMen may be waiting until they feel they can properly provide for their children before becoming fathers

Older fathers are no longer unusual. For the past 10 years, statistics show that nearly two-thirds of babies have been born to fathers aged 30 and over.

Are men taking longer to find their perfect mate - or has austerity just made them more focused and career-minded?

David Kesterton, parenthood and community project manager at the Family Planning Association, says there are a variety of sensible and practical reasons why men are having children later in life.

"There's the economic reason that causes people to delay having children, the desire to focus on careers and the difficulties of buying your own home when young," he says.

But he also speculates that it's to do with the rise in second marriages for men, sometimes with younger women, which can mean becoming a father again at a more advanced age.

And of course we are all feeling healthier and living longer too.

"Forty is the new 30. Both men and women feel they have the energy for parenting later in life," Kesterton says.

Stable family

Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser for the parenting charity NCT, agrees that potential parents are now tending to wait until they have the means to cope with bringing a baby into the world.

"This trend may be due to parents waiting until they are best placed to welcome their baby into a financially stable family setting, in addition to fewer teenage mothers, following moves to discourage very early parenthood."

When the 2011 figures from the Office of National Statistics are broken down, 29% of fathers were 30-34, 21% were aged 35-39 and 10% aged 40-44. Only 4.6% were 45 years or over.

So much for the grey-haired brigade. The figures suggest that men who become fathers in their 50s and 60s, such as Rod Stewart (66), Sir Paul McCartney (61), Clint Eastwood (66), Frank Skinner (55) and Gordon Brown (55), are still relatively uncommon.

A good thing perhaps, since research shows that men - as well as women - have a biological clock.

While a woman's ability to reproduce greatly reduces after a certain age, which explains why only 0.3% of mothers in 2011 were over the age of 45, men can go on creating children as long as they can have sex.

Yet it is not all good news for the male of the species.

'Lower IQ'

Dr Yacoub Kalaf, consultant in reproductive medicine and surgery at Guy's Hospital, says that research suggests there is an age after which men suffer from reproductive ageing.

"Men over 45 may have offspring which have a higher likelihood of a neuro-cognitive disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia. They could also be expected to have a slightly lower IQ."

He cautions that these health risks are very small and that environmental factors must be taken into account as well. In the end, he says, when to have children is a very personal choice.

"Careers, experience, family - they all dictate when you start having children.

"If the choice is between taking a small risk or not having a child together, the couple will always opt for going for a child."

Scientific studies show that around the age of 40, men also become less fertile.

'Don't wait'

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at Sheffield University, says experts do not yet know exactly why.

"We can't see changes in sperm quality so we suspect there is something happening to a man's DNA - or he's having less sex.

"Research suggests older men find it harder to become fathers - and that is probably a sexual function issue.

"In any event, my advice would be for men to have children as young as possible - don't wait until your 50s."

The Family Planning Association runs Speakeasy courses helping parents to communicate with their children about difficult subjects like growing up, relationships and sex.

Although David Kesterton says it is harder to attract fathers to participate, he says older fathers can have a different relationship with their children.

"On the one hand, the older generation fathers are more conservative in what they feel confident talking about - but they also have the perspective of wisdom.

"Younger parents can feel closer to their children, but be more caught up in their pressures."

Whatever your age, being an approachable father is always the best kind.

More on this story

  • Older dads linked to rise in genetic disorder