When young girls between the age of 15-19 years get pregnant, it is termed teenage pregnancy. Biologically, females are able to get pregnant after their first menstrual period which on average starts between the ages of 8 to 15 years. Therefore at times pregnancy may take place at a much younger age. Teenage pregnancies are typically accidental or unintentional and may be associated with economic, social and medical complications.
The major reason for teenage pregnancy is lack of condom usage or other contraception. This can be due to ignorance, sexual violence or in some cases it may be intentional due to cultural reasons. Many factors lead up to this.
Poverty is a major contributor to teenage pregnancy. Young girls living in poverty in rural and urban areas mostly do not have access to healthcare facilities and education. They also tend to be more at risk of being targeted by older men or sexual predators.
The lack of adequate sex-education in schools does not prepare young teenagers to face the challenges of dealing with their developing hormones and the sexual urges that come with them. Peer pressure, the sexualized media, underage alcohol use and/or illegal drug abuse may also contribute to unwanted teenage pregnancies.
Parents play a huge role in shaping their child’s sexual outlook. Therefore a lack of guidance and supervision from them can have a huge effect. Also teenagers, whose parents are overly critical of them or those with parents who withhold their love and affection, tend to suffer from low self esteem. Teenagers therefore look for validation elsewhere and many times this can result in irresponsible sexual behavior at an early age leading to pregnancies.
Social and cultural factors also play a role in teenage pregnancy. For example in rural parts of India and Bangladesh, the tradition of child marriage is deeply entrenched in the culture. Child marriages result in socially sanctioned teenage pregnancies. Many a times because of the lack of healthcare facilities, young girls die in childbirth.
Certain factors may make teenagers more likely to get pregnant compared to others in their peer group. These are:
- Teenagers whose mother was also a teenage parent
- Teenagers who were victims of sexual abuse
- Teenagers who are sexually active at a young age
- Teenagers who lack family and social support
- Teenagers for whom puberty began at an early age
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Dropping out of school or having limited education
- Absent parents or lack of supervision
- Teenagers who belong to a lower socio-economic strata of society
Teenage pregnancy is usually detected first by a missed menstrual period. Other signs include tenderness of the breasts, vomiting, morning sickness, weight gain, fatigue, mood swings, frequent urination and a swollen abdomen.
Due to the young age of the mother, complications during pregnancy may include premature birth, pre-eclampsia ( high blood pressure in the mother), anemia and underweight babies.
The most accurate and quick diagnosis of pregnancy at any age is the home pregnancy test. A positive result on it may then be confirmed by scheduling an appointment with a doctor, who will confirm the pregnancy with a blood test.
There are many options available for underage pregnant mothers. It is up to her, the father (if he is in the picture) and/or the families involved to make the right decision regarding the outcome. Some may consider abortion (ending the pregnancy medically) or adoption (legally permitting someone else to raise the child after birth). Some may even choose to raise the child themselves with the help of their families.
If the route of abortion is chosen, it is necessary that the procedure is done by a licensed surgeon and proper after care is provided.
If one chooses to keep the baby till term, care should be taken to restrict activities such as cigarette smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, which have been proven to be harmful to the baby. For example, cigarette smoking during pregnancy has been shown to lower birth weight and cause babies to be born prematurely while alcohol abuse has been linked to growth defects and heart problems.
Whether a pregnant teenager decides to keep or abort the baby, providing adequate psychological counseling is of great importance. It will help deal with the emotional, physical as well as social consequences of their decision.
Sex education at an early age is key to equipping teenagers with the right messages about sex. They need to be taught ways such as abstinence, use of condoms and other contraception, to protect themselves from accidental pregnancies.
Besides schools, community outreach programs especially in low income neighborhoods and government policies can play a big role in relaying the message of safe-sex to youth from all social-strata. The free distribution of condoms in many schools can make teenagers far more likely to use them.
Families can do their part by openly talking about safe sex with their growing children and encouraging them to have a responsible and consensual sex life.