What Is Teenage Pregnancy?
Teenage pregnancy is when a woman under 20 gets pregnant. It usually refers to teens between the ages of 15-19. But it can include girls as young as 10. It's also called teen pregnancy or adolescent pregnancy.
In the U.S., teen birth rates and number of births to teen mothers have dropped steadily since 1990. In 2018, just under 180,000 infants were born to teens 15 to 19 years old. Teen birth rates have fallen by 70% in the past 3 decades. That trend is driven both by the fact that fewer teenagers are having sex and that more of them use birth control when they do.
Even so, a much higher share of American teens get pregnant than girls in other developed countries. And the pace of the decline in teen pregnancy in the U.S. differs by race. Non-Hispanic Black girls and Native American girls have seen much slower drops in teen pregnancy compared to Asian American girls.
Teenage Pregnancy Symptoms
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 dieting or exercise, low body fat from sports, or anorexia.
The full list of pregnancy signs includes:
- A missed menstrual period
- Nausea or vomiting -- called "morning sickness," though it can happen throughout the day
- Sudden, intense aversion to certain foods, especially meats or fatty, fried foods
- Sore nipples or breasts
- Unusual fatigue
- Frequent urination
- Unusual mood swings
- Feeling lightheaded
- Weight gain
- Swelling belly
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.
Teenage Pregnancy Risks
Pregnant teens and their unborn babies have unique medical risks.
Lack of prenatal care
Pregnant teens are at risk of not getting the right prenatal care, especially if they don't have support from their parents. Prenatal care is critical, especially in the first months of pregnancy. Prenatal care looks 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 before getting pregnant -- are essential in preventing certain birth defects such as neural tube defects.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Risks to teenage boys
Teen fathers are up to 30% less likely to finish high school than other teenage boys. Worries about their partners’ health, limited money, educational challenges, and other stresses can take a mental, physical, and financial toll on some would-be teen fathers.
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.
Teenage Pregnancy Diagnosis
You usually can check if you’re pregnant with a home test from the first day you miss your period. All pregnancy tests check for a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).
The home tests check for hCG in your pee. You also can get a blood test at your doctor’s office. The advantage with checking your blood is that it can tell you if you’re pregnant about a week earlier than home kits. Both home and office tests are very accurate, especially if the results say you’re pregnant.
Most states allow minors (almost always defined as someone under 18) the right to seek pregnancy care without notifying their parents. And doctors must keep confidential any information about minors who are pregnant unless they have a legal reason, such as if the teen is a danger to herself.
Teenage Pregnancy Health Risk Prevention
If you are a teenager who is pregnant, here is how to ensure a healthy 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 an unborn baby 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.
Teenage Pregnancy Prevention
The surest way to avoid pregnancy is not to have sex. Or if you do have sex, to always use contraception.
The most effective birth control for teenagers is long-acting reversible contraception (LARC). They include implants that go under the skin in your arm or intrauterine devices that your doctor inserts into your uterus. LARCs work 99% of the time to prevent conception. They work for 3-10 years and can be taken out when you want to try to start a family.
If you use birth control pills, condoms, or other forms of contraception, learn how to use them right and follow instructions.
Talk to your parents or trusted adults about how to get birth control if you’re sexually active.
Ask your doctor, your public health center, or a Planned Parenthood clinic for guidance and prescription for birth control. Most nonprofit and community health centers offer care for free or on a sliding-fee scale based on your income.