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Young people 'missing out' on parenthood due to a lack of knowledge about their fertility

News 15 April 2016

A survey of 1,000 young people from across the UK reveals worrying gaps in their knowledge of fertility and reproductive health, which experts believe may leave them ill equipped to choose when to have children, prevent unplanned pregnancy or take steps to safeguard their fertility.

Around 80% of both sexes believe women’s fertility only starts to decline after the age of 35, and a quarter of boys think women’s fertility starts to decline after the age of 40, compared with 16% of girls. Two-thirds of those surveyed think men’s fertility only starts declining after the age of 40, with a third believing it doesn’t begin declining until after the age of 50. While the change is less dramatic for men, fertility rates for both sexes actually decline gradually from the late 20s, and can be affected by genetic and environmental factors such as smoking, obesity and nutrition.

Of the 16–24-year-olds surveyed, 94% of those who did not already have them said they would like to have children in the future. Of those who said they wanted children in the future, three-quarters of girls (76%) and two-thirds of boys (64%) said they would like to have children before they are 30. This is in stark contrast to the demographic shift upwards in the age of first birth in England and Wales – in 2014 for the first time over half (52%) of all births were to women aged 30 and over and two-thirds (67%) to men aged 30 and over. This is due to many factors including the socio-economic pressures of developing careers and establishing relationships.

These issues will be discussed at a Fertility Summit being held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists today (Friday), convened by the British Fertility Society in partnership with the College and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare.

The Summit aims to inspire debate and action on how to improve young people’s knowledge of fertility and reproductive health, to ensure they are equipped with the right information to make informed decisions about their own fertility journey, or others they have an impact on. The event will hear from health and education professionals, as well as young people’s groups and charities. Also speaking is the broadcaster Alex Jones, who is making a documentary about fertility and has spoken about the difficulties women face trying to balance their careers with motherhood.

Summit organiser Professor Adam Balen, Chair of the British Fertility Society, said: “The findings of this survey confirm our fears that many young people encounter few opportunities to learn about their reproductive health until they try to conceive. One in 6 couples experience difficulties in becoming pregnant and the associated emotional and physical impacts cannot be underestimated.

“Our aim is to ensure that the knowledge components of sex and relationship education not only cover how to avoid pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, but also include information about fertility to help people plan. It should be choice not chance – we want to enable young people to make informed choices about pregnancy, whether that choice is to start a family or not.”

Professor Lesley Regan, a fertility expert and Vice President for Strategic Development at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “While the risks should never be overplayed, men and women should be aware that reproductive outcomes are worse in older women. As well as it potentially taking longer to get pregnant, later maternity can involve a greater risk of miscarriage, a more complicated labour, and medical intervention at the birth.

“The wide range of social, professional and financial factors influencing the increasing age at which women are having their first baby is unlikely to be reversed dramatically, but it’s important that both men and women are aware of when male and female fertility starts to decline.

“We also believe more should be done as a society to help people who would like to start a family earlier, for example, maternity pay, job security for women with young children, access to flexible working and the cost of childcare are all prohibitive factors to having children sooner.”

Dr Chris Wilkinson, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and a consultant in sexual and reproductive healthcare, said: “The findings of this survey support the need for young people to be better informed about fertility and reproductive health. We remain concerned that sex and relationship education in schools is not universal. Where it does occur, this education can be variable and time spent on it is often very limited. We strongly urge governments across the UK to improve the quality of sex and relationship education so young people leave school armed with the necessary facts about not only safe sex, contraception and consent but also fertility and reproductive health.”

Alex Jones, broadcaster and co-host of BBC’s The One Show, said: “While exploring my own fertility and meeting couples experiencing fertility problems through making the documentary, I’ve been shocked by the amount of myths and misconceptions about fertility that contribute to a lack of awareness among both men and women. Infertility is heart breaking and I fully support anything that can be done to help educate young people about the facts to help them decide when, or if, to start a family.”

Other findings from the survey:

  • The vast majority of young people – around 9 in 10 – are aware that women are most fertile under the age of 30
  • Encouragingly, 80% of girls and two-thirds of boys (66%) are aware that age is the number one factor which affects female fertility
  • Girls tend to consider that a higher number of factors affect their fertility than boys
  • Two-thirds of girls are now aware that being overweight or underweight affects fertility
  • 40% of girls mistakenly believe that having a miscarriage or being on the contraceptive pill for too long can adversely affect fertility
  • Substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, steroids) is perceived to be the main factor affecting male fertility – this does affect fertility but age remains the most common factor
  • Around 50% of young people did not recall seeing, hearing or talking about fertility in the past year
  • Of those that had, fewer than 1 in 5 recalled getting the info from official sources, such as through sex and relationship education, their GP or a sexual health clinic

View the fertility infographic (PDF, 166 kb). 

Ends 

Notes to editors:

For more information, contact the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists press office on 020 7772 6300 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk.

A survey of 1,000 respondents from across the UK, aged 16-24, was carried out by Research Now between 23 February and 6 March 2016.

The Fertility Health Summit: Choice not Chance will take place on Friday 15 April 2016 at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

The Fertility Taskforce is a multi-disciplinary group of clinicians and educational professionals who have advised on the development of the Summit. The taskforce is a specialist interest group of the British Fertility Society and includes representation from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and a range of independent education and healthcare professionals.

Background:

  • Female fertility starts to decline gradually from the late 20s as the number of eggs a women is born with are lost progressively over time the further away they are from starting their first period. Female fertility starts to decline more rapidly from the mid-30s onwards.
  • Approximately 15% of the population (1 in 6 adults) experience fertility problems
  • A steadily rising proportion of women in the UK have never had a child (20% in 2013)
  • The average age of first-time mothers in 2014 was 28.5 years – a figure that has been increasing steadily from 24.0 years in 1971
  • The number of births (fertility rates) among 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 year olds are falling
  • Women aged 30-34 currently have the highest number of births of any age group
  • Fertility rates for women aged 35 to 39 and over 40 have trebled in the past 15 years
  • Although fertility rates for women aged 40 and above have been generally rising fast, this is contributed to by fertility treatments, and natural fertility among women in their 40s is still considerably lower than for women in their 30s
  • Even with assisted conception such as IVF, the success rates are much lower for women in their 40s than in their early 30s
     

More information from the Office for National Statistics: Conceptions in England and Wales 2014