While nearly all in the study wanted children, almost one in eight of the women wished to wait until their 40s to have their last baby and almost half until the ages of 35 to 39. A third of the men believed a woman's fertility decreased markedly only after the age of 45.
"While the participants had a relatively realistic perception of the most fertile period in a woman's life, both women and men had overly optimistic perceptions of a woman's chance of becoming pregnant and are not sufficiently aware of the natural age-related decline of female fertility," said lead author Dr Claudia Lampic. She feared that many female academics intending to have children when fertility is markedly lower might subsequently end up involuntarily childless or suffering secondary infertility.
Because postponing childbirth is increasingly common in western countries and relatively few studies have been done into awareness of fertility, researchers from Uppsala University investigated students' intentions and attitudes towards parenthood and their knowledge of age-related decline in female fertility.
Responses from a survey of 222 women and 179 men selected randomly from students enrolled in degree programmes showed that 97% of the men and 96% of the women who did not have children did want them, with around 85% wanting two to three. (Thirty-two students had children already, or were pregnant). Men most often wanted two children. Women were evenly split between a desire for two, two or three, or three.
Most women wanted their first child at around 28 with almost two-thirds choosing 25-29, but nearly a third chose between 30 and 34. Only 3% preferred to delay their first birth until between 35 and 39. However, 12% wanted to wait until their 40s to have their last baby and 47% chose between 35 and 39 as the ideal age for their last birth.
Over half the men wanted their first child between 30 and 34 with 30 being the mean. Just over a third preferred 25-29 and a tenth 35-39. Nearly half wanted the last child between 35 and 39, and a quarter chose 30-34. Over a fifth preferred 40-44 with 5% opting for 45-50.
Dr Lampic, who is based at the Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences at Uppsala University, said she was not really surprised at the findings. "Having children is one of the things that we regard as a normal part of life until we encounter problems achieving a pregnancy. There are reports in the media on women's fertility declining with age, but these are contrasted by other reports of women having babies in their 40s."
Another finding was that a third of women, but only a tenth of men, presumed parenthood would affect their work status, with women significantly more pessimistic than men about the effect of parenthood on their career and relationship with their partner.
In Sweden, the mother and father are each entitled to 240 cash benefit days when they have a baby. All but 60 of these days may be transferred to the other parent, which has led to more than 80% of all parental benefit days being used by women. Also, many women with small children choose part-time work.
Dr Lampic said: "It's been argued that this disadvantages women's work status because employers regard it as more risky to employ a woman in the fertile age bracket than a man. If parental benefit days were more equally divided between mothers and fathers it would strengthen women's status in the labour market. In Sweden, a limit to the right to transfer benefit days is currently being discussed as a way to increase fathers' use of these days."
She said the present findings about the lack of awareness of age-related decline of female fertility contain a message for both women and men because both sexes had put great importance on having children. Both sexes had also emphasised the importance of having a stable partner, adequate housing and a good job before undertaking parenthood, which was a responsible stance.
"However, what both women and men should be aware of is that a couple's chances of achieving a pregnancy decreases when a woman reaches her mid-thirties and they should avoid delaying their attempts at pregnancy until that age."
Given that the study was carried out among the most highly educated section of the population in Sweden and that Sweden has a high level of education generally, Dr Lampic said it was a distinct possibility that awareness could be even lower in many other European countries.
She felt that national campaigns and leaflets could help raise awareness among women and men and that the regular visits most women have to healthcare professionals for birth control may provide opportunities for discussions about plans for having children, and age-related fertility issues.
"Our findings certainly indicate that female academics could benefit from information regarding fertility in order to make informed decision about family planning. I also believe that governments should increase their efforts in encouraging couples to take an equal part in the upbringing of their children." (ends)
 Fertility awareness, intentions concerning childbearing, and attitudes towards parenthood among female and male academics. Human Reproduction. doi:10.1093/humrep/dei367.
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