Adolescent pregnancy

The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate of any Western nation, with approximately 560,000 girls giving birth every year. The rate is twice that of Canada and England and seven times that of the Netherlands. Although that rate has been declining in recent years, teenage pregnancy still extracts a tremendous toll on family and government financial resources, on the hopes and dreams of the young people involved and on the future of their baby.

Physically, a woman is able to bear a child once she has gone through puberty. However, pregnancy and parenthood can be more emotionally, physically, andfinancially taxing than expected.

Pregnancies can be unexpected, resulting, for instance, from the failure of acontraceptive method. However, many teens do not have the facts regarding teenage pregnancy, and instead of asking their doctor, they ask their friends--who can be a tremendous source of misinformation. Among the common beliefs that teens hold is that urinating or douching after sex will prevent pregnancy(they won't) and that "you can't get pregnant the first time" (you can). Teens are often embarrassed to visit the doctor and ask questions, and will haveconflicting feelings about having sex: on the one hand, they may feel that "everybody else is having sex"; on the other, they may feel too shy to even talk about it. Add to that the sexual messages presented by the media and it isno wonder that teens feel pressured to have sex even though they may not be emotionally ready to handle it.

The first sign of a pregnancy is often a missed menstrual period. Pregnancy should be confirmed with a pregnancy test, first a home kit and then a test inthe doctor's office. Unfortunately, pregnant teens often delay seeking prenatal care; seven out of 10 teenage mothers don't see a doctor during the firstthree months of pregnancy. However, the first three months of a pregnancy isa vital time in the development of the baby. Unless the mother receives proper care and nutrition, there can be health risks for the baby. Most common (and often a result of poor prenatal care) among teenage mothers is the risk ofhaving a low birthweight baby, a baby born too small and too soon. Low-birthweight babies are at special risk for having immature hearts, lungs, and brains, and mental retardation. Besides the lack of prenatal care, other maternalfactors that can affect the baby's health include poor nutrition, cigarettesmoking, iron deficiency anemia, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Teenage mother face higher risks than older mothers, too. During their pregnancy, they are more vulnerable to having toxemia, anemia and preeclampsia without proper care. Also, they may go into labor too early or face especially long labor.

It is estimated that about half of the teenage girls who get pregnant opt forabortions. Of the girls who give birth, most decide to keep their babies. Between 1982 and 1988, only three percent of Caucasian girls gave their babiesup for adoption, compared to 19% between 1965 and 1972. That figure is even smaller for African-American girls.

Raising a baby, even with the support of a family and the baby's father, is often difficult. The teenage mother must adjust to having her freedom curtailed in a way she never before imagined, and to having the baby dependent upon her 24 hours a day. Teenage mothers are less likely than their peers to finishhigh school or attend college.

However, many states and localities have teenage-parent support programs thatwill help teenage mothers and fathers adjust to their new responsibilities.Some programs, like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), make sure that the teenage parent will have the necessities available to take care of the baby, such as access to a pediatrician and baby food and formula. Other programs, suchas those offered by some local hospitals, will teach young parents what theyneed to know to take care of an infant, and provide guidance and reassurance.

Teenage mothers are also more likely to become pregnant again within two years of their baby's birth.

Sexually active teens should be certain to get the facts about pregnancy andcontraception. Family doctors and obstetrician-gynecologists are excellent sources of information, as are organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Birthcontrol methods such as the Pill and Depo-Provera/Norplant are almost 100% effective in preventing pregnancy; they are available through prescription. Sexual abstinence is also 100% effective. Barrier methods of contraception are also effective, but only the condom can protect against the passage of STDs and AIDS.

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