A hard look at teen pregnancy

A teenage mother is at greater risk than women over 20 years of age for pregnancy complications such as premature labor, anemia and high blood pressure. And teen mothers under the age of 15 are at even greater risk. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella)

One of my patients, a 14 year-old girl, was having trouble with her family, school and the law. She told me that she was trying to have a baby because being a mother would straighten her out. 

A teen father told me that his son filled a hole in his life. He lost his own father four years before the baby was born, so he was going to do all the things with his son that he could no longer do with his own dad. And he said that his son would love him even if nobody else did.

As these stories suggest, some teens want to have babies. In fact, according to data from a national survey, 13 percent of teen girls and 20 percent of teen boys say they would be pleased by a pregnancy. Surprised? Most people are.

Here is something else you may not know. American teenagers get pregnant at a higher rate than teens in any other developed country. Here are some facts:

  • 4 in 10 girls become pregnant at least once before age 20
  • Each year 1 million teen girls < age 20 become pregnant and a half million give birth
  • Every hour, 100 teen girls get pregnant and 55 give birth
  • 1 in 4 teen parents has a second child within 24 months
  • Two thirds of the fathers are teenagers themselves

What can parents and other adults do to help? Teens need better sex education and better access to contraception. I’d say that’s a “given.” But considering I never met a teenager who didn’t know what a condom was, they clearly need more.   

I must admit that I cringe at the way being a teen parent can make you famous. It can even get you on “Dancing with the Stars” and get you votes! I was afraid that the reality show, “16 and Pregnant,” would glamorize teen pregnancy and so I did not watch it … until I decided to write this blog.  The show illustrates the strain teen pregnancy puts on the girl, the boy and the entire family. Dreams are destroyed and adolescence is stolen. But is that enough to motivate teens to avoid pregnancy? I don’t think so.

Teens need the real facts about the risks of teenage pregnancy, the real reality:

  • Teen pregnancy is risky for the mom.  A teenage mother is at greater risk than women over 20 years of age for pregnancy complications such as premature labor, anemia and high blood pressure.  And teen mothers under the age of 15 are at even greater risk. Most teenagers don’t know this. 
  • Teen pregnancy is risky for the baby. Babies born to teen mothers are more likely to have low birth weight, congenital anomalies and developmental problems — chronic problems that require much care. Babies born to teen mothers are at a higher risk of dying. Most teenagers don’t know this either.      

When a teenager becomes a mother ... she needs our help. We need to help young mothers finish high school. Teen mothers who finish high school are less likely to become pregnant again as a teen. 

When a teenager becomes a father ... he needs our help, too. In fact, many teen fathers want to be involved but they feel pushed out. One teen father told me that he was not allowed in the delivery room when his baby was born. His baby was born very small and was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a month. During this time he was not included in discussions with the nurses and doctors. He felt like he didn’t count. 

Teen fathers need our help to stay involved because when they are involved during the pregnancy and birth, they are more likely to stay involved with their children in later years.

My advice: 

  • Start the dialogue with your children about sex … and re-start it again and again. 
  • Talk to your teenagers about the real medical risks to teenage mothers and their babies … and talk to them about it again and again.
  • Help your teenagers feel good about themselves — so that having a baby doesn’t seem to them like a way to make their lives better. Tell them what you love about them … and then tell them again every day.

If parents help their teens understand all of the risks of teen pregnancy — and develop their sense of self-worth — then teens may choose to delay sex, or use reliable contraception, until they are truly ready for parenthood.

In a future blog, I’ll talk about accidental teen pregnancies.

Meanwhile, do any of the teens in your life think having babies will make their lives better? Please feel free to share your experience.

Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.