Teenage pregnancy is generally defined as a pregnancy in a woman who is 19 years of age or under. Teenage pregnancies in Australia have decreased considerably over the last four decades. This drop is due to increased availability of contraception, access to abortion and a change in educational and career opportunities for women.
Internationally, Australia’s teenage fertility rate is substantially less than the United States of America and the United Kingdom but more than European countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands .
It is often assumed that all teenage pregnancies are accidental but this is not always the case. Some teenagers actively plan to become pregnant or don’t use contraception, knowing that pregnancy is a real possibility.
Who is at risk of teenage pregnancy?
There are a number of risk factors for teenage pregnancy. They include:
- family situations with regular conflict between members
- violence and sexual abuse in childhood
- unstable housing arrangements
- poor school performance
- poor school attendance
- low socioeconomic background
- family history of teenage pregnancies
- low maternal education
- father’s absence
- low self-esteem
- in a relationship with an older partner
- Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
- Living in rural and remote areas
Decisions around a pregnancy
It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of teenage pregnancies that are terminated as Medicare figures do not include all abortions. However, it is generally considered that slightly more teenagers have an abortion than continue with a pregnancy. In addition, only a few teenagers choose to have the baby and give it up for adoption.
It is important that young women are given adequate information about all their pregnancy options before they make a decision. Unfortunately, many teenagers delay seeking advice when they are pregnant, perhaps hoping that it is not true. For those who choose to continue with the pregnancy these delays can mean missing out on important antenatal care (see sections below).
For those who choose an abortion, a delay in confirming the pregnancy can impact on the type of termination available (ie., medical abortion, where available, is only performed for pregnancies of less than 9 weeks).
For more information on making a decision about a pregnancy see Children By Choice’s decision making tool .
Health implications for teenage mothers
Teenagers have higher complication rates both during pregnancy and delivery. In teenagers under 15 years of age, these complications can be caused by biological immaturity. At this age girls have an underdeveloped pelvis which can cause difficulties during childbirth.
Teenager mothers often delay finding out if they are pregnant and, therefore, often do not receive adequate antenatal care. Poor antenatal care is a major contributing factor to pregnancy and birth complications. For example, during pregnancy women are screened for a number of conditions such as high blood pressure. Screening for these conditions means they can be addressed early, limiting their impact. If women are screened late in their pregnancy or not at all, it can lead to complications for both mother and baby.
Poor eating habits (skipping meals, dieting and eating more fast food) common in teenage girls can place them at risk of nutritional deficiencies due to the added dietary requirements during pregnancy.
Teenage mothers have a higher risk of postnatal depression than older women. This is most likely due to a number of factors including a lack of support, isolation from peers and/or family, financial pressures and societal attitudes.
Socio-economic implications for teenage mothers
One of the most important long term implications for teenage mothers is not completing their education. This lack of education can result in long term unemployment or job options that are poorly paid and insecure . Being dependent on welfare or on a poorly paid job can place teenage mothers under greater financial pressure. In addition to the emotional stress that not having enough money brings, a low income often means living in poor housing and being unable to afford adequate health care or even basic necessities.
Teenage mothers may also experience alienation from their peers and family. In addition, a pregnancy can place a great deal of strain on young relationships. Consequently, 60% of young mothers do not have a male partner when their baby is born . Loneliness and financial dependence can make teenage mothers vulnerable to becoming involved in unhealthy relationships (eg., domestic violence situation).
Unfortunately, there is also still a stigma in society attached to being a teenage mother. This stigma can affect the way a teenage mother feels about her parenting abilities, motherhood in general and even herself as a person. Negative attitudes towards young mothers can erode their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
Implications for the baby
As discussed above, inadequate antenatal care and/or exposure to tobacco smoke, alcohol and drugs can all impact on the unborn baby. Miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight and birth defects can occur as a result.
Children born to teenage mothers are also more vulnerable to neglect. This is due to a range of factors including poverty, parenting inexperience, social isolation and being in an unhealthy relationship (eg., domestic violence situation). They are also more likely to become teenage parents themselves
Support for teenage mothers and their babies
Ensuring that young women receive adequate antenatal care is a very important step in improving the health of teenage girls and their babies. If they enter antenatal care in the early stages of their pregnancy they can be properly monitored and any health issues addressed.
Although educational policies aim to ensure that pregnant students and young parents are not disadvantaged, in reality many girls do not feel supported by the school environment and so stop attending. Some schools, however, have devised special programs that actively support teenage mothers to continue their education. In Queensland this includes Mabel Park State High School and Burnside High School and in New South Wales, Plumpton High School, which was also the subject of an ABC documentary.
There are also a range of community-based organisations that provide support to young mothers.
Preventing teenage pregnancies
Research suggests that knowledge about reproductive matters (ie., sex education) and access to contraception, including emergency contraception are vital in preventing teenage pregnancies. Teenage girls often use contraception sporadically. While this can be due to a lack of understanding about the chances of pregnancy, it is also due to a lack of skills to successfully negotiate safe sex, particularly with a new and/or older partner.
As evidenced by the risk factors for teenage pregnancy (see Who is at risk?) it is clear, however, that much broader issues than just sex education and contraception are required to prevent teenage pregnancies. Protection from violence and abuse, family support, affordable housing, improved school retention, building self esteem and better educational and vocational opportunities are all required.
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics. Births Australia, 2009 Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3301.0 [website] date accessed: 6th July 2011
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics. Births Australia, 2009 Ibid
3 Family Planning Queensland. Teenage Pregnancy Indicators http://www.fpq.com.au/pdf/Teen_pregnancy_indicator.pdf [website] date accessed 6th July 2011
4 Queensland Health. Health Determinants: Chapter Three Young People Queensland Government 2004 p30 http://www.health.qld.gov.au/hdq/documents/22418_3.pdf [website] date accessed 6th July 2011
and Krystyna Slowinski, Unplanned Teenage Pregnancy and the Support Needs of Young Mothers South Australia Department of Human services 2001 http://www.sapo.org.au/pub/pub1321.html [website] date accessed 6th July 2011
6 Condon, J T & Corkindale C. Teenage pregnancies: Trends and consequences Current Therapeutics 2002 Vol 43 No 3 p25-31
7 Queensland Health. Ibid
8 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Young Australians: Their Health and Wellbeing 2011 Canberra: AIHW 2011 http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737419261 [website] date accessed August 3rd 2011