The sight of a young girl with a ‘big belly’ is a fairly common one in the Caribbean. A United Nations Report (2013) indicated that the Caribbean has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, with the countries of Belize, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines having the highest rates. With a rate of about ninety-nine (99) teen births per year, the figures for St. Kitts-Nevis are not as high as other countries in the Caribbean. Still, pregnancy among teens remains just as much a public health concern here as for other countries in the region.
Why is teenage pregnancy a concern? If a girl is biologically able to become pregnant, does her age really matter? Numerous studies show that, while teenage girls may be able to conceive and deliver a baby, teenage pregnancy carries numerous risks for both parent and child:
Teen Pregnancy – Risks to the Baby
• Low Birth Weight - Teenage mothers gain less weight during pregnancy than older mothers, and are more likely to deliver a baby with low birth weight, i.e under 5.5 lbs. Low birthweight is associated with several infant and childhood disorders and a higher rate of infant mortality. These babies are also more likely to have organs that are not fully developed, which can result in complications, such as bleeding in the brain, respiratory distress syndrome, and intestinal problems.
• Premature birth and Stillbirths – Teenage mothers are more likely to deliver prematurely, compared to older mothers. Babies born prematurely are at risk of health complications, and death. Stillbirths (the birth of a baby who has died) are also twice as common in teenage mothers, compared to those of adult age.
• Lack of prenatal care- Teenage mothers, many of whom hide their pregnancy for many months, are less likely to get prenatal care- which is important in monitoring the health of the fetus and the mother. According to the American Medical Association, babies born to mothers who do not have regular prenatal care are four (4) times more likely to die before the age of one (1) year. Teenage mothers may also be more likely to engage in risky behaviours during pregnancy, such as smoking, drinking, and unprotected intercourse, further endangering the health of the fetus
• Lower quality of caregiving – Teen parents often lack the maturity to cope with the demands of parenting, resulting in emotional problems such as stress and depression, and a lower quality of caregiving overall. Children born to teenage mothers are less likely to receive proper nutrition, health care, and cognitive and social stimulation, and are more likely to be abused and neglected.
Teen Pregnancy –Disadvantages for the Mother
• Pregnancy complications – Teenage mothers, particularly younger ones, have higher rates of prolonged labour, complications (such as preeclampsia) and death during pregnancy, than mothers in their twenties and early thirties.
• Anemia -Teen mothers are more likely to develop anemia, i.e abnormally low level of red blood cells, during their pregnancy. Anemia can cause problems for both the mother and baby, including increased risk of premature birth and difficulties during labor and delivery.
• Postpartum depression. Teen pregnancy, which is often an unplanned and challenging event, puts the mother at an increased risk for postpartum depression. Teen mothers are roughly twice as likely to have postpartum depression compared to adult mothers, according to a May 2014 article in ‘BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth’.
• Interrupted Education – Teenage pregnancy often results in a girls’ education being interrupted or terminated altogether, resulting in poorer job prospects and less financial stability for mother and child.
• Interrupted Development – Adolescence is a time of self-development – when teens focus on socializing/having fun, furthering their education, and learning about themselves and life. Pregnancy may short-circuit this process of self-development, since the teen may now be responsible for caring for another human being, even before she has completed the process of development, herself.
• Relationship Instability -The stress of early pregnancy and childrearing may contribute to the breakdown of the teen’s relationship. Fathers who were present at the time of birth may leave the unit, resulting in the mother bearing the burden of parenting alone. Teen marriages are also very unstable. These marriages are twice as likely to end in divorce, compared to unions of those who have already reached the age of twenty-five (25).
While many teen mothers and their children fare well, the above shows that teenage pregnancy is risky for both mother and child. Additionally, since teenage mothers and their children do not live in a vacuum, these risks carry over to society as well. A higher rate of teenage pregnancy may mean a higher rate of social problems, such as poverty amongst women, single parent households, parents who are stressed and unable to cope, and children who are abused, neglected, or simply not well cared for.
Teen pregnancy, therefore should not be looked at as just ‘having children at a younger age’, but a public health concern that needs to be addressed. Parents, teachers, counsellors, and other youth workers can assist by educating youth about sexual health and contraception (including abstinence as being the only ‘guarantee’ against pregnancy), and by making certain contraceptives accessible where appropriate. While the focus of this article was on young mothers, since they are disproportionately affected by teen pregnancy, the significant role of young men in contributing to teenage pregnancy (e.g refusing to wear condoms) should not be ignored. Sexual education efforts should focus on both adolescent boys and girls, and the ways that they can avoid becoming teen parents.
An understanding of the factors that put teens at greater risk for pregnancy can also help in the fight. Some of these factors are: poor parental supervision, poor communication between parent and teen, father absence, family history of teenage pregnancies, teens’ lack of knowledge of contraception and sex, association with sexually active peers, low attachment to or involvement in school and lack of positive future goals. Controlling for these risk factors can also help to reduce teenage pregnancy rates, for the betterment of society.
Counsellor, Counselling Centre
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