Did you know that three in ten American girls get pregnant by age 20? That adds up to 2,000 teen girls getting pregnant every day. Over the course of a year, four hundred thousand teenagers, half of whom are 17 years old or less, give birth. Our teen pregnancy rate is twice that of any other advanced country, and nearly ten times as high as Japan’s, despite similar levels of sexual activity. However, after reaching a peak in 1990, the teen pregnancy rate is now at a record low, at 39 births among 1,000 teenagers, a positive change that has been attributed to the more widespread use of condoms. Still, more than ten percent of all U.S. births are to women less than 20 years old, and one fourth of moms younger than 18 go on to have a second baby within 2 years after the birth of their first one.
Babies born to teens are more likely to end up in the NICU than babies born to mothers older than twenty, because of their high rates of prematurity and low birthweight. Teens are the least likely group of women giving birth to get early and regular prenatal care, and they’re also smokers more often than mothers over 25. They are at higher risk for complications of pregnancy such as pregnancy-associated high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) and premature labor. Their infants are less likely to survive to their first birthdays, compared with women who give birth in their twenties or thirties.
In addition, consequences of teen pregnancy are far-reaching. For the young mothers, they include being a single parent, living in poverty and depending on welfare, and failing to continue education beyond high school (only 40% graduate). Children born to teen moms tend to have educational problems, too. They are fifty percent more likely to repeat grades in school and to drop out of high school than kids whose mothers gave birth in their twenties or beyond. They are more likely to be victims of child abuse and neglect, to have worse physical health, and to have a higher a rate of incarceration when they become adults than children born to mothers who delay childbearing. Costs to society are substantial: About $4 billion a year is spent providing public benefits to support the health and welfare of teen parents and their children, and the total increases to $9 billion if costs for foster care, incarceration, and other social services needed to manage the negative consequences of teen pregnancy are included.
Which teens are most at risk for becoming pregnant? Those who are doing poorly in school, who are economically disadvantaged, and who have single parents or parents who were themselves teens as first-time mothers.
How are teen pregnancies best prevented? Teens themselves say that their parents’ influence is the most important factor in helping them to avoid pregnancy. Parents need to talk with their teens honestly about sex, love, relationships and responsibility, not just once (“the talk”), but repeatedly from a young age, always in an age-appropriate way. Parents need to tell teens directly why teen pregnancy is a bad idea. Perhaps surprisingly, the MTV reality show, “16 and Pregnant,” may be a positive force in preventing teen pregnancy. Eighty-two percent of teens who watch the show say it has helped them understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood, and why they should avoid it. The show can be a good launching off point for conversations between parents and their teens.
School or community-based educational programs are more likely to be helpful if they are comprehensive sex education programs that review specifics of contraceptive use. Teens who have been through abstinence-only education tend to have sex at a similar rate to those who’ve been through comprehensive sex education programs, only they use birth control less frequently.
With more open dialogue between parents and teens, and more sex education that focuses on specific ways to avoid pregnancy, besides abstinence, the teen pregnancy rate can be further reduced.
Several parents in my book, FOR THE LOVE OF BABIES, are teenagers. Read their stories in the book, now available on Amazon's and Barnes and Noble's websites.