Teenage Pregnancy and Early Puberty

A fact that most commentators do not seem to be talking about is the fact that puberty now starts in the developed world 2-3 years earlier than it did in the 19th century- largely due to improved nutrition.

As a result it’s almost inevitable that the mothers we see will be younger and younger. Whether it be from youthful sexual experimentation or honest to god child/underage sexual abuse (which is quite common), the end result is the same- a young girl becomes pregnant.

Teenage pregnancy itself carries high risks- medical and socioeconomic. The medical risks include the following.

For the mother:

  • Obstructed labour due to small pelvic size – potentially leading to fistulae and other long term complications, additionally it can be potentially fatal.
  • Anaemia
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Perineal tears
  • Pre-Eclampsia and Eclampsia – potentially fatal

For the child:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature delivery
  • Death from obstructed labour
  • All the complications from the above
  • Developmental delay from foetal malnutrition and complications of the above

In addition there are significant socioeconomic problems associated with teenage pregnancy including:

  • Lack of access to social support services
  • Being kicked out of home
  • Lower rates of completing education
  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Social stigma
  • Inadequate parenting if the mother is not given enough support
  • All the complications of the above

All in all it’s a depressing and dire situation. There are communities (of all racial groups) in Australia where teenage pregnancy is the norm and almost encouraged. There is even a large financial lump sum incentive offered by the Australian government for one’s first child- a lump sum which conveniently hides the fact that the financial cost of looking after a child is very high thereafter. This leads to a persistent cycle of poor education, unemployment, social stigma, health problems which perpetrates itself through the generations and ingrains poverty and helplessness.

To a certain extent there is some romanticisation in the media about teenage pregnancy- just look at “Juno” which is a lovely movie but glosses over the medical and social impacts. It is a depiction of a minority of teenage mothers who decide to adopt their child out and who have strong family support and continue with their education.

If young people are going through puberty at an earlier age, what can be done to prevent the above situation from occurring?

This may seem to be an odd thing to say but controlling childhood obesity not just reduces maternal health in pregnancy but should have an indirect  effect in reducing precocious puberty.

Sex education needs to begin at an earlier age in an age-appropriate manner. Things all the way from recognising and avoiding sexual predation to making one’s own choices and having safe sex need to be covered. Sex education has been shown to improve outcomes significantly.

There needs to be access to contraception and social services. Early intervention with a social worker is important to ensure that appropriate support and decision making occurs.

Destigmatisation and an active, open discussion about teenage pregnancy also needs to occur.

We need to empower poor people. The dole in Australia is barely enough to cover rent let alone to take care of a young child. We need to intervene in ways which keep young people in school and educated yet still able to take care of their child. We need to teach people that education and employment and opportunity go hand in hand and that these things are not just a myth but in fact truly achievable things. Finishing high school at the least has a marked effect on future outcomes not to mention that some form of tertiary education has a huge effect too. Many poor uneducated people do not know how to access financial or social support and teaching them how to use these services effectively is really valuable.

We need to change our culture. The sexualisation of young people by advertising, the media, teen magazines, etc is one thing that is a contributing factor to teenage pregnancy. Australian culture can be quite anti-intellectual and dismissive of the value of secondary or tertiary education. This needs to change. Even an arts degree will make you >$10,000 a year richer on average- a significant thing for a young mother. For that matter showing that education is important rather than a waste of time is protective against having a pregnancy at a young age.

Then there is the fetishisation of the idea that all you need to be happy is a wedding, babies and a big house. This is patently false and is a dangerous lie that ruins people’s lives.

I could go on…