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Teen Pregnancy: Medical Risks and Realities

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Teen pregnancy: Medical risks and realities continued...

These medical risks affect the pregnant teen, who may need to take medications to control symptoms. But they can also disrupt the unborn baby's growth. And, they can lead to further pregnancy complications such as premature birth.

Premature birth

A full-term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. A baby that delivers before 37 weeks is a premature baby, or "preemie." In some cases, premature labor that begins too early in pregnancy can be stopped by medications and bed rest. Other times, the baby has to be delivered early for the health of the mother or infant. The earlier a baby is born, the more risk there is of respiratory, digestive, vision, cognitive, and other problems.

Low-birth-weight baby

Teens are at higher risk of having low-birth-weight babies. Premature babies are more likely to weigh less than they should. In part, that’s because they've had less time in the womb to grow. A low-birth-weight baby weighs only 3.3 to 5.5 pounds (1,500 to 2,500 grams). A very-low-birth-weight baby weighs less than 3.3 pounds. Babies that small may need to be put on a ventilator in a hospital's neonatal care unit for help with breathing after birth.

STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases)

For teens who have sex during pregnancy, STDs such as chlamydia and HIV are a major concern. Using a latex condom during intercourse may help prevent STDs, which can infect the uterus and growing baby.

Postpartum depression

Pregnant teens may be at higher risk of postpartum depression (depression that starts after delivering a baby), according to the CDC. Girls who feel down and sad, either while pregnant or after the birth, should talk openly with their doctors or someone else they trust. Depression can interfere with taking good care of a newborn -- and with healthy teenage development -- but it can be treated.

Feeling Alone and Isolated

Especially for teens who think they can't tell their parents they're pregnant, feeling scared, isolated, and alone can be a real problem. Without the support of family or other adults, pregnant teens are less likely to eat well, exercise, or get plenty of rest. And they are less likely to get to their regular prenatal visits. Having at least one trusted, supportive adult -- someone nearby in the community, if not a family member -- is invaluable in helping them get the prenatal care and emotional support they need to stay healthy during this time.

How to lower the health risks of teen pregnancy

If you are a teenager who is pregnant, here is how to ensure a healthy teen pregnancy:

  • Get early prenatal care. Call your doctor for your first prenatal visit as soon as you think you might be pregnant. If you can't afford to see a doctor, ask your school nurse or counselor to help you find a low-cost clinic and other resources. For example, they can help you find state Medicaid or WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) programs. 
  • Stay away from alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. These harm a growing fetus even more than they harm a growing teenager. If you're not able to quit by yourself, ask for help from someone you trust. 
  • Take a prenatal vitamin with at least 0.4 mg of folic acid every day to help prevent birth defects. Ideally, this should start before you get pregnant. 
  • Ask for emotional support. Motherhood brings untold emotional and practical challenges -- especially for teens still in school. Reach out to others -- your friends, family, the baby's father -- for emotional and practical support.

For teenagers who are healthy, chances are good of delivering a healthy, strong baby -- especially with early prenatal care and a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Mikio A. Nihira, MD on July 07, 2012
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