Exclusive: Trailblazing baby – New Zealand’s oldest mum gives birth at 64

The tiny newborn baby suckles hungrily from his 64-year-old mother until he gets to the point where he can drink no more.

Gently falling off her breast, eyes shut with contentment, milk delicately spills from the corner of his mouth.

This little tot cocooned in small baby pants and a brightly-patterned top is nothing less than a miracle child.

For more than eight months he has developed inside his mother’s post-menopausal womb, defying the odds when fertility experts urged caution and said the risk was too great.

When he is born in mid-October at Auckland City Hospital and placed on his mother for a long-awaited first cuddle, it is a significant moment in our country’s maternity history.

“I might be the first one but it doesn’t feel abnormal in any way at all,” she says. “My body feels normal.”

It’s a feat the retired Auckland professional had to travel halfway across the world to make happen after fertility clinics in New Zealand and Australia refused to offer treatment, deeming the risk factors too great for a woman her age.

The pregnancy, which started at a clinic in Georgia in February, went without a hiccup.

The new mum and grandma-of-three glided effortlessly through the tricky first trimester where the threat of miscarriage always looms large.

She even enjoyed the bonus of not being dogged by morning sickness, before Covid-19 forced a fast retreat back home.

In Auckland over two lockdowns her belly swelled with a growing child, the near-impossible edging closer to reality by the day – all the while keeping the reason for her expanding waistline secret.

Then finally, in the middle of October at 38 weeks and one day, the expectant mum walked into Auckland City Hospital to finally welcome her son.

For the past eight months this unborn child, created from two mystery donors, had managed to defy health risks that come with an older age pregnancy, developing normally after being artificially transferred into his Kiwi mother’s womb.

Feeling the tiny person move and grow inside her was a dream come true. To finally hold him in her arms was overwhelming.

“He is truly my little wonder baby,” she smiles.

Last year, just under 60,000 babies were born in New Zealand.

Of those more than 153 mums were aged 45 or older.

Statistics New Zealand data shows the birth rate for women aged 40 years or older and considered at the end of their natural reproduction cycle is continuing to climb unlike any time in history.

It’s a key fertility trend which is seeing more and more women have children at increasingly older ages as they choose to marry later, or focus on careers or buying a house before starting families.

According to the Health Ministry’s most recent Report on Maternity for 2017 the median age of women giving birth in New Zealand for the past decade has been 30.1 years.

Stats NZ says there have been around 30 women aged 50 or older who have given birth in the past three and a half years. Their data doesn’t specify upper age nor where they received IVF treatment.

A health ministry spokesperson said between 1988 and 2019, the oldest maternal age recorded on a live birth registration in New Zealand was 57.

But overseas, assisted pregnancies are taking place in even older women. Last year 74-year-old Mangayamma Yaramati became the oldest new mum in the world after giving birth to twins in India using IVF treatment.

In 2016 Spanish doctor Lina Alverez gave birth to her third child aged 62, the birth sparking heated debate in her native country over capping the age limit for assisted reproduction.

It’s these cases the Auckland woman points to as proof age should not be a barrier for those who want to have children later in life.

Despite already being a mum of four and having her first child in the early 80s, she still harboured a desire to become pregnant again, even though she was well past natural child-bearing years.

And the reason was simple; she wanted to have a baby of her own and raise the infant in the next chapter of her life.

She explains the longing for a child goes back nearly five years.

“My eldest daughter was eight months pregnant with her first child. I wanted to be in the same situation again.

“I wanted to enjoy raising a child and enjoy watching him grow.”

But when she confided in another daughter about the yearning, her daughter was concerned about over-populating the planet and frowned on the idea.

“She put a big damper on it and completely put me off the plan. So even though I wanted to at that stage I just put it on the backburner.”

After two summers on Waiheke Island caring for her new granddaughters and enjoying the company of young mums, the newly retired Aucklander decided to once more investigate the possibility of having a child.But this time she decided it was something she would keep to herself.

“I went to Fertility Associates at the end of July and was told there was no upper age limit in New Zealand because that would breach the Human Rights Act but that the oldest woman that had given birth in New Zealand was 56.

“They put me through an initial evaluation process but my conclusion was that it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to be turned down, with their main weapon sending me to an obstetric physician who proceeded to tell me all the risks I’d be at including cardiological, pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, and embarked on a lecture about how I was unfit to have a child.”

the woman says the only physical check she undertook was for blood pressure which came back normal.

“The obstetric physician did not refer me. It was like, this is going to be your first and last appointment.”

But Fertility Associates general manager Dr John Feek said while there was no upper limit on fertility treatment all women aged 45 and over were asked to see an obstetric physician to assess their health ahead of any possible treatment.

“There’s quite a lot of information in the medical literature about older women in their 50s and 60s and the complications of pregnancy and birth and the chance of dying, the chance of serious morbidity, which is why we’ve chosen to have a threshold of around 45 to get some expert advice.

“You have to go on risk.

“Whether or not we offer treatment depends on the advice that comes back from the obstetric physician about the safety for the particular person, considering their circumstances.”

Despite the rebuff, the Aucklander went to heart and gynaecological specialists in her home city to see if her ageing body would be up to carrying a child so late in life.

Her cardiac function came back normal for an adult of any age, not just for someone in their 60s.

Aware that her risk factors were high – more than 50 per cent chance of pre-eclampsia and a 30 per cent chance of preterm delivery that could result in a child with a disability – she believed the end result would be worth it and continued shopping around overseas for a clinic that would take her.

“I am taking lots of chances but willing to do so,” she wrote soon after atest confirmed her pregnancy in February.

“Heck, when you are looking for a positive thing to live for, I have definitely found one.”

Under the guise of a ski holiday the woman, who is keeping her identity concealed to protect her son’s privacy, left New Zealand in early December for treatment at a fertility clinic in Georgia where she had been accepted.

She kept the reason for the trip a closely guarded secret.

“I wasn’t going to tell my family because I know I’m easily persuaded by their opinions. My daughter had already persuaded me out of this in 2015 and I thought, ‘Well, it’s not their life,’ and I didn’t want anyone to say anything that would put me off.”

Starting hormonal treatment before she left to coincide with her donors’ cycle she arrived in the former Soviet socialist republic prepared to stay for up to six months to conceive.

The exact identity of the donors remain unknown save the age and nationality of each of them – the woman was 24 and the male 31, with no significant health issues or known hereditary disorders.

“I was asked to write a paragraph about what sort of donors I would like. I wanted them to be intelligent because my other children are highly intelligent, and I wanted the child to fit in, and I wanted them to be altruistic, concerned with the environment and interested in the arts.That was it. I didn’t mention sport,” she laughs.

Within a day of arriving the woman had an ultrasound to see if the lining of her uterus was ready for implantation. While she had hoped to undergo the first transfer before Christmas the scan revealed a benign polyp. She underwent a procedure to remove it and prepared for a transfer in the new year.

Then on February 8, five years after first considering the possibility of falling pregnant, she walked into the foreign clinic and underwent the implantation procedure that would see her fall pregnant on her first attempt.

“I’d been taking my oestrogen and utrogestone. I had an ultrasound to show the endometrium was getting thick enough and went into the office and signed the contract.Then I went into a room that was a usual clinic with couches where women have to put their legs up in stirrups and a lab technician came in with a pipette.

“They did the transfer under ultrasound control. The two doctors were looking at the screen and the lab technician handed the pipette to the doctors who seemed to both want to put it in!

“They inserted the pipette into the uterine cavity and I was told to just lie there with my legs up in the air for 20 minutes. Then they wanted me to catch a taxi home. I said, ‘No I never spend money on taxis. I’m going to catch a bus’. They were obviously used to people who come to Georgia and stay in a nice hotel to get their IVF treatments and I was in a hostel on the other side of the city.

“And I was told not to go skiing. They didn’t want me to do anything that would make me fall over and miscarry.”

To her surprise the blastocyst took hold, though celebrations were limited to sharing the happy news online with a handful of close friends scattered across the globe.

“I had tried not to get my hopes up in any way so they wouldn’t be dashed if it was negative. I was fully prepared to stay in Georgia up to six months and have six blastocysts transferred, one at a time. Once I started on it I was going to stay on it and keep doing it. I was extremely lucky.”

But plans to remain longer and better understand Georgia and its culture for the sake of her unborn child were suddenly disrupted with the abrupt arrival of Covid-19 sweeping across Europe.

As country after country started closing borders, and facing the daunting prospect of being stranded halfway across the world, the newly pregnant Kiwi hastily changed plans and headed for the Austrian capital of Vienna where she caught a connecting flight to Dubai bound for Auckland as the first outbreak hit downunder.

“If I had been five weeks later in Georgia my baby would never have been born as Georgia closed its services and the IVF clinic due to the Covid-19.”

Now back home, eight weeks pregnant and self-isolating in separate bubbles with her daughter, it wasn’t long before the real reason for her overseas trip was revealed.

“My daughters worked out I was pregnant,” says the woman. “There were all these strange things like reducing the size of my coffee and having syringes in my drawer and little bruises on my tummy from anticoagulant injections and Facebook posts about trying to transfer 6000 euros and how difficult it was. By the time I got home they were putting it all together.

“They confronted me with all these little pieces of information and kept asking, ‘Is there anything you want to tell us?’

“I’m just really, really bad at keeping secrets. I was still trying to keep it a secret until 24 weeks but I relented on the spot. I can’t lie. I can’t keep a straight face!”

Despite their sleuthing, confirmation their mum was now expecting still came as a bombshell.

“The initial reaction wasn’t very good. I guess it was like the Elizabeth Kubler Ross stages of grief. There’s that initial shock of grieving and you have this curve that goes down low and then it slowly rises up.”

She said the pair questioned her about what would happen in 10 year’s time and who would look after the child given her age.

“I told them I’ll appoint a legal guardian. That’s what any parent does.”

In the meantime her 64-year-old body, hidden beneath the baggy sweats and jackets, began to transform, as her son grew inside.

“I still had granny hands and a wrinkly neck but it was almost like the rest of my body that no one saw was a young person’s body. It completely remodelled itself.”

Delivery day came mid-October, 14 months after taking the first steps to have a child.

The tot that the woman had travelled some 16,000km to conceive was born a healthy 3.3kg, and despite the raft of potential complications, was in great health.

“I thought this is my love child. I know that that normally has a different meaning but this was a child I loved and wanted so dearly and he looked like he belonged.”

Now with babe in tow, she’s excited about the future embarking on a path well outside what society expects a woman approaching retirement years to be doing.

“I’m not actually expected to work at my age,” she says.

“In fact, I’m not expected to achieve anything in life. I’m expected to work for a local charity, travel and look after the grandchildren.

“Up to a year ago, those are the only things people ever asked me if I was going to do. That was my future.And is that satisfying?

“No one thinks there’s any issue of a 64-year-old man having a child. It’s perfectly acceptable for them to have a child.

“There’s the whole argument about being an older parent but no one applies it if it’s a father. But when it’s a mother they try to apply it.

“I can’t see the reason why women should be obstructed from doing it.They should simply be given the right to give informed consent.”

And while older women having children is presently met with resistance, she is confident it will become an accepted part of assisted reproduction within a few decades.

“It was sensational when the first baby was born by IVF. Now after four decades it’s commonplace and everyone knows a young woman who’s having a child by IVF or knows a child who’s been conceived by IVF. No one is shocked by this. No one is shocked by women starting their families in their late 30s and early 40s. That’s become the social norm. I realise I’m in my 60s but I don’t think it will be that long before it becomes the social norm for women to be having their family in their 50s.”

She describes being denied treatment in New Zealand as thinly-veiled age discrimination which should be legally challenged under the Human Rights Act and the practice ceased.

“All people over 40 years of age, not just men, have the right to have a child, and have a right to appropriate health screening to assess their fitness for childbearing, and be offered treatment if the woman gives her informed consent, irrespective of whether or not government funding is available.”

But Peek rejects any notion of age discrimination when it comes to denying treatment to older women.

“What there is is a risk associated with age and certain conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and all those things.And age in itself will be a risk factor.

“We rely on the obstetrics physician to put those all together for an individual person seeking treatment.”

Peek is not convinced one successful case is enough to draw a generalisation across an entire age band.

“What’s important is to look at information from studies that look at 50 and 100 women to best give you an idea of the overall risk.

“There’ll always be some people that despite the odds don’t have any complications no matter what condition they have and then there’ll be some that, when everything looks straight forward, do have complications.”

“This is bound to be divisive and spark conversations – especially as it’s not a common occurrence here,” says Fertility NZ chairwoman Juanita Copeland.

As the only local charity providing support and advocacy for Kiwis facing infertility the head of the organisation says maternal age is a clinical matter, with pregnancy in this age bracket carrying an inherent risk both to the mother and the unborn baby.

While it was a scenario often seen in celebrities, Copeland says these pregnancies often gave false hope to Kiwi women.

“Travelling overseas may be faster in some cases, but it circumvents all the systems we have in place here to protect the rights of the child and provide sound legal, medical and ethical support for the parents and resulting child or children.

“That’s why there are rules and guidelines capping the age of intended parents seeking treatment. These take into account clinical and ethical risk,” says Copeland.

She says the best interests of the future child or children should always be at the heart of any decision making.

In New Zealand the Ethical Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (Ecart) helped make these decisions guided by the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (Hart) Act.

The ministerial committee considers, determines and monitors applications made by fertility clinics for certain procedures and research.

This includes clinic-assisted surrogacy, donation of eggs or sperm between family members, research on gametes and non-viable embryos and creation and use of embryos created with donated eggs and donated sperm.

In its latest published report from 2014 the committee reviewed 50 applications. Of those five were specifically about creating embryos from donated eggs with donated sperm, the same treatment the Auckland woman travelled overseas to have.

Four were approved and one was approved with conditions.

Between 2011 and 2015, when Ecart started reviewing this type of application there had been 18 applications approved and seven babies born.

“Anyone considering becoming pregnant at this advanced maternal age should consider all the implications for both the pregnancy and the future child,” says Copeland.

“If they came to us for support and information we would certainly suggest they seek advice from a counsellor who specialises in fertility to talk through potential issues and outcomes associated with using donors and the impact of their age on their parenting journey and the future of their child.”

Unsurprisingly the Auckland woman who sought treatment overseas has nothing but praise for the foreign fertility doctor who shared her belief age should not be a barrier to giving birth.

“He sincerely believes it is a woman’s right to start anew, with a new family, just as it is a man’s.”

With drawers filled with hand-me-down baby clothes passed on from her own grandchildren, the mum is adamant she should not be the only older woman in New Zealand to share in the joy of childbirth.

Her Auckland obstetrician has come on board and even cleared her to have a second IVF child if she so chooses.

“It was a great, positive experience. I strongly recommend it to any other woman aged in their mid 40s and older who wants to have a child.”

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