Teenage Mothers in the United States

It is difficult to define exactly what constitutes teenage motherhood because of inconsistencies in defining its age limits, but studies focusing on the causes and consequences of teen motherhood typically include young women fifteen to nineteen years old. Although births occur among adolescents younger than fifteen, they are often included only in aggregate national statistics. Childbearing among children under age fifteen is considered socially problematic in almost all industrial cultures. Studies describing the trends, patterns, and prevalence of teen motherhood continue to show that the United States has the highest teen birthrates of all industrialized countries and that these patterns have fluctuated over time, declined in the 1960s and 1970s, rose rapidly between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, and decreased substantially in 1999–2000, reflecting the lowest rate observed since 1987 for those fifteen to nineteen years old, and the lowest in three decades for those ten to fourteen years old. Despite these trends, approximately four in ten U.S. girls get pregnant at least once in their teens, 20 percent of teen births are repeated pregnancies, and approximately 18 percent of African Americans, 14 percent of Hispanics, and 7 percent of whites are teen mothers (as Susie Hoffman and Velma M. Murry have pointed out, not all pregnancies result in parenthood).

Risk factors for teen pregnancy include living in southern rural areas, having low educational expectations and school performance, and having a lack of optimism about the future. Additional risk factors include living in a state with high poverty and male incarceration rates or with a gender ratio imbalance, residing in a single-parent family and in a disorganized or dangerous neighborhood, having a lower family income and lower levels of parental education. Other issues include a desire for and a romanticization of motherhood, adolescent mental health (depression and low self-esteem), and poor family relationships that increase reliance on boyfriends and peers for emotional support. Other contributing factors include having older sexually active siblings, having pregnant or parenting teenage sisters, associating with friends who have children, being intimately involved with older males, and sexual victimization. Biological factors, such as androgen hormone levels, the timing of PUBERTY, and the age of MENARCHE among mothers, daughters, and sisters, have been associated with elevated pregnancy risk. Risk factors for repeated pregnancies include depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, poor school performance, and impaired parenting practices.

Teenage motherhood places both the young mother and her child at risk for various problems, including low educational attainment, high unemployment, greater dependency on welfare, and lower levels of psychological functioning for mothers. Family social support and educational attainment differentiate teen mothers who fare well from those who do not. Infants born to teenage parents have greater incidences of low birth weight and learning problems. The desire to be good mothers is compromised by poor parenting skills, fewer positive verbal and emotional interactions with the child, and unrealistic expectations. Conversely, teen parents' parenting behavior is enhanced by the presence of a grandmother in the home when the mother–grandmother relationship is supportive and affectionate. Poor birth outcomes are also moderated by the mother's age: children born to adolescents fifteen years old and younger are at greater risk than those whose mothers are sixteen to nineteen years old. Children's development is also enhanced when mothers have more education, stable employment status, fewer additional children in the household, live in a more advantaged community, and reside with an additional adult, including a male partner.

Stanley Henshaw reports that 22 percent of all teen pregnancies and 44 percent of births among fifteen to nineteen year olds were intended. Factors that encourage adolescents to become mothers are as complex as those that influence adult women's decisions to have a child. Most adolescents who "want" a child lack close fulfilling personal relationships and report that they desire a child for stability, as a way of setting a life course, and to gain maturity. According to Patricia East and Marianne Felice, adolescents who plan pregnancies are different from those whose pregnancies are unplanned. Among those reporting planned pregnancies, 28 percent of black teens, 45 percent of white teens, and 63 percent of Hispanic teens were older (average 17.4 years), more likely to have an ongoing relationship with their child's father, and were in better financial situations two years after the birth.

Taken together, these findings suggest that being a teen mother does not automatically translate into negative outcomes and that some teens purposefully become mothers. The challenge for researchers and practitioners is to design approaches for understanding more about those conditions that foster positive outcomes for the teen and her child, despite age at first birth, and to consider contextual processes that identify ways to dissuade early parenting and ways in which protective factors foster positive outcomes for those who do become parents.

Globally, teenage women are less likely to give birth than their counterparts 20 years ago, but the rates are still high and many of those pregnancies are unwanted. In the United States, despite the decrease in the number of babies born to teenagers, the rate still continues to be more than four times that of many industrialized nations. According to Stephanie Ventura and her colleagues, the United States had 48.7 births per 1,000 women aged fifteen to nineteen, compared to less than 10 births per 1,000 of the same cohort in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Reasons for the difference are unclear. Jacqueline Darroch and colleagues, as well as Douglas Kirby, have suggested that access to effective contraceptives and early exposure to comprehensive sexual health information are lower in the United States than in other developed countries.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Teen Pregnancy; Sexuality.


Alan Guttmacher Institute. 1981. Teenage Pregnancy: The Problem That Hasn't Gone Away. New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute

Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Lindsay Chase-Lansdale. 1995. "Adolescent Parenthood." In Handbook of Parenting: Vol 3. Status and Social Conditions of Parenting, ed. Marc H. Bornstein. Mahwah, NJ:Erlbaum.

Darroch, Jacqueline E., Susheela Singh, and Jennifer J. Frost. 2001. "Differences in Teenage Pregnancy Rates among Five Developed Countries: The Roles of Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use." Family Planning Perspectives 33: 6.

East, Patricia L., and Marianne E. Felice. 1996. Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting: Findings from a Racially Diverse Sample. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Henshaw, Stanley K. 1998. "Unintended Pregnancy in the United States." Family Planning Perspectives 30: 24–29.

Hoffmann, Susie D. 1998. "Teenage Childbearing Is Not So Bad After All… or Is It? A Review of the New Literature." Family Planning Perspectives 30: 236–243.

Hoyert, Donna L., Mary Anne Freedman, Donna M. Strobino, and Bernard Guyer. 2001. "Annual Summary of Vital Statistics:2000." Pediatrics 6: 1241–1256.

Kirby, Douglas. 2001. Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Lawson, Annette, and Deborah L. Rhode. 1993. "Introduction to Adolescent Pregnancy." In The Politics of Pregnancy: Adolescent Sexuality and Public Policy, ed. Annette Lawson and Deborah L. Rhode. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.