For many teenagers, pregnancy is an unplanned and challenging life event -- and one that can reroute their entire life course. In addition to the implications on education and financial stability, becoming pregnant as a teenager is associated with an increased risk for some potentially serious health problems for both the mother and the baby. The mother's risk for anemia and postpartum depression is heightened, and the baby is more likely to be born prematurely and have a low birth weight.
Low Birth Weight
Teenage mothers are more likely to deliver a baby with a low birth weight -- that is, a baby weighing less than 5.5 lbs. The authors of an April 2007 study published in the "International Journal of Epidemiology" found that mothers aged 10 to 19 were 14 percent more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby compared to mothers aged 20 to 24. Babies born underweight are at a higher risk for a number of problems that can affect their heart, lungs and brains. While some babies born with a low birth weight are healthy, it is a serious condition and one of the most important risks of teen pregnancy.
When women give birth in their teen years, they are at higher risk of the baby being born early, or prematurely. A study published in the "British Medical Journal" in November 2014 found that premature birth was significantly more likely for teenage mothers than for women who deliver in their 20s or early 30s. Being born prematurely is the leading cause of death for infants and young children.
Teen mothers are more likely to develop anemia -- or an abnormally low level of red blood cells -- during their pregnancy. Most commonly, the anemia is related to an iron deficiency. Anemia during pregnancy can pose problems for both the mother and baby, including increased risk of premature birth, and difficulties during labor and delivery. With severe anemia, the baby's development before birth may be affected.
Having a baby as a teenager 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." Postpartum depression is a mood disorder in new mothers and can start anytime in the first year after having a baby. It can show up as sadness, difficulty sleeping and anxiety. In severe cases, the mother may have thoughts of hurting herself or the baby.
Care and Support for Pregnant Teens
Not every teen who gets pregnant and not every baby born to a teen mother will have health problems -- but the risks are definitely higher. Receiving prenatal care throughout pregnancy can reduce the risk of health problems associated with a teen pregnancy. So it's important to see a doctor as early as possible in the pregnancy and establish a partnership to keep both the mother and the baby healthy.
- New England Journal of Medicine: Association of Young Maternal Age With Adverse Reproductive Outcomes
- JAMA: Babies With Low Birth Weight
- British Medical Journal: Impact of Maternal Age on Obstetric and Neonatal Outcome With Emphasis on Primiparous Adolescents and Older Women: A Swedish Medical Birth Register Study
- World Health Organization: Preterm Birth
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Depression Among Women of Reproductive Age
- BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth: The Effect of Social Support Around Pregnancy on Postpartum Depression Among Canadian Teen Mothers and Adult Mothers in the Maternity Experiences Survey
- Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine: A Review of the Risks and Consequences of Adolescent Pregnancy
- International Journal of Epidemiology: Teenage Pregnancy and Adverse Birth Outcomes: A Large Population Based Retrospective Cohort Study
As a pediatrician and a mother, Sandra Beirne has experience caring for children from both perspectives. A graduate of the University of Washington Medical School and the University of Rochester Pediatric Residency Training Program, she has published her writing in Environmental Health Perspectives and has an active pediatric practice.