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How to Feel Good About the Study That Says Old Moms' Kids Are Smarter

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Fewer teens in the U.S. are giving birth, while the number of women over 35 giving birth is at its highest since the baby boom in the 1960s—a shift that you'd think would make the alarmists and gestation-shamers back off a little.

But they don't.

Any pregnant woman over 35 (and especially over 40) will tell you that every giddy squeal of congratulations was met in equal numbers with offers of concern, stats from studies "heard somewhere" and advice to prepare for the worst (whatever the worst could be).

Which is what makes a couple of new studies, reported on in the New York Times, such a celebration for women who experienced "geriatric pregnancy" or "elderly primigravida," medical terms for women who were pregnant and gave birth either after 35 and after 40, respectively. The study concluded that the kids born to moms who were 35 to 39 years old did better on cognitive tests than kids born to younger mothers.

Which is of course terrible news for moms who had their kids in their twenties and early thirties (as the majority of women still do).

But before you moms with the great skin and ability to stay up past 10 p.m. panic over your kids' college prospects due to your refusal to wait until your eggs were good and ripe (and maybe even a little overripe and possible ready to disappear?), take a step back and look at what this new study really shows. Because not just any old (literally) woman is having a baby later in life. The pool of candidates is somewhat smaller, more affluent and generally better educated.

These days older moms have more advantages and are better able to take care of themselves during pregnancy, see doctors, were less likely to smoke and more likely to breast-feed ...

Back when they first did studies on older moms, the type of women who had babies into their late thirties and forties hadn't actually been holding out, by and large, to start a family. No, these were women who already had a bunch of babies. (We're talking back in the '50s and '60s. Yay for progress on family planning and pregnancy prevention!) These women also tended to be poorer or, at the very least, stretched.

These days older moms have more advantages and are better able to take care of themselves during pregnancy, see doctors, were less likely to smoke and more likely to breast-feed compared to the younger mothers, the study's lead author Dr. Alice Goisis, research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, told the Times.

“Nowadays children of older mothers have, on average, better outcomes because of the characteristics of women who tend to have children at older ages,” Dr. Goisis said.

Are you relatively affluent and better educated? Did you know enough to back away from the Marlboro Lights and eat a bowl of spinach once in while? Then you can calm down, your kid will be fine. Even if you're not affluent and never DID get that college degree done, you've read this far which says a little something about you. And so your child(ren)? Totally fine.

But remember, these are tendencies of older people, not habits impossible to achieve until one's middle age.

But here's the study that may make you young'uns gnash your teeth or at least regret every timeout you ever put your kids in. Emotionally, older moms may have the advantage.

Parenting practices have tended to differ with age and a study—this time based on Danish moms—found that the older the mom, the less likely she was to be harsh with her 7- and 11-year-olds. That means they did less scolding and little to no physicial discipline. The children of these older women were also not as likely to have behavioral and emotional problems.

In fact, it's in this realm where age itself appears to, indeed, be an advantage.

Researchers for the Danish study looked to see whether income or education appeared to be connected at all to the different parenting practices and could find none. “Older mothers seem to thrive better,” said Tea Trillingsgaard, an associate professor of psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark and lead author on the study. “The mothers have more psychological flexibility, more cognitive flexibility, more ability to tolerate complex emotional stimuli from the children.”

But remember, these are tendencies of older people, not habits impossible to achieve until one's middle age. What it all actually means, as the Times nicely summarizes, is that women—mothers—need support in order to thrive as moms. Their kids benefit in congnitively measurable ways. And they, themselves, become better parents.

If that doesn't comfort you younger moms, then just keep this in mind. The results of these studies are like a pendulum. If you wait long enough, things will swing back the other way and you'll get the answer you want.

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