Teen Pregnancy: Medical Risks and Realities

Do you have the facts about teen pregnancy? Do you know the common early signs of pregnancy? How to have a healthy pregnancy at a young age? Here’s information that will help you understand teenage pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy: The facts

In 2013 the latest year for which statistics are available, the U.S. pregnancy rate among girls between 15 and 19 was 26.6 births for every 1,000, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy. The rate has steadily declined since 1991, when it was 117 per 1,000 teens between the same ages.

U.S. teen birth rates have also declined. In 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate was 34.3 births per 1,000 teens, compared to 61.8 births per 1,000 teens in 1991. Fewer babies were born to teenagers in 2013 than in any year since 1946. Still, almost one in six (17 percent) births to 15- to 19-year-olds were to females who already had one or more babies

Still, the teen birth rate in the U.S. remains nine times higher than in other developed countries, according to the CDC.

Teen pregnancy: The signs

Missing one or more menstrual periods is the classic sign of pregnancy. But this can be tricky for teenage girls, whose periods aren't yet regular. It can also be tricky for girls whose cycles are off as a result of excessive dieting or exercise, low body fat from sports, or anorexia.

The full list of pregnancy signs includes:

Of course, a positive pregnancy test is another sign of pregnancy. Today's home pregnancy tests are generally considered accurate. These simple kits can be bought over the counter in drugstores.

Teen pregnancy: Medical risks and realities

Pregnant teens and their unborn babies have unique medical risks.

Lack of prenatal care

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Teenage girls who are pregnant -- especially if they don't have support from their parents -- are at risk of not getting adequate prenatal care. Prenatal care is critical, especially in the first months of pregnancy. Prenatal care screens for medical problems in both mother and baby, monitors the baby's growth, and deals quickly with any complications that arise. Prenatal vitamins with folic acid -- ideally taken beforegetting pregnant -- are essential in helping to help prevent certain birth defects, such as neural tube defects.

High blood pressure

Pregnant teens have a higher risk of getting high blood pressure -- called pregnancy-induced hypertension -- than pregnant women in their 20s or 30s. They also have a higher risk of preeclampsia. This is a dangerous medical condition that combines high blood pressure with excess protein in the urine, swelling of a mother's hands and face, and organ damage.

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.

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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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH on September 14, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: "Pregnancy."

Nemours Foundation: "When Your Teen Is Having a Baby."

Medline Plus: "Teenage Pregnancy."

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): "Especially for Teens: Having a Baby."

Simpson, K. R., Creehan, P. A., and the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN). Perinatal Nursing, 2nd edition, Lippincott, 2001.

WebMD Medical News: "Postpartum Depression: How Common?"

National Center for Health Statistics: ''Vital Signs: Teen Pregnancy -- United States, 1991-2009.''

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy: ''Fast Facts: Teen Pregnancy in the United States.''

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

 

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