A girl who has decided to have her baby should be under the care of an obstetrician, preferably someone with experience in working with adolescents. Visits to the doctor’s office will be scheduled every two to four weeks through week number thirty-three. Then they double in frequency until the baby’s arrival.
According to Dr. Richard Brookman, the optimal health-care setting for pregnant teens combines medical care with nutritional counseling and psychosocial services, “to address some of a teenager’s other needs.” Ask your pediatrician if she knows of any comprehensive adolescent prenatal programs or multidisciplinary obstetrics practices in your community.
One of the staff’s top priorities, besides being alert to potential medical problems, is to impress upon the young woman the importance of keeping herself healthy. “Medically, most pregnant adolescents do just as well as adults,” says Dr. Brookman. “The increased risk of complications in teen pregnancies is due to behavioral factors such as smoking and substance abuse, or a girl being found to have a sexually transmitted infection at the time her pregnancy is diagnosed. Late entry into perinatal care may also increase the risks.”
Tobacco’s detrimental effect on the fetus is well documented, having been linked to increased risks of spontaneous abortion and fetal death, and babies born with low birth weight and developmental delays. One in seven premature deliveries can be blamed on maternal smoking. Yet the mid-1990s witnessed a rise in the percentage of teenagers who smoked throughout their pregnancy—one in six, at last count. Parents of the parent-to-be play an important role in ensuring the unborn child’s well-being. Keep an eye out for signs of tobacco use, drinking, taking drugs and reckless sexual behavior. If you have reason to believe the mother isn’t acting in her baby’s best interest, alert the obstetrician.
At each appointment, girls receive counseling on other aspects of pregnancy, such as contraception, infant care and diet. Contrary to popular belief, most teenage girls have little difficulty eating for two. But compared to adults, adolescents are more likely to lack sufficient stores of iron and other nutrients. During pregnancy, those nutrients go selectively to the baby. That’s why taking prenatal vitamins and iron is so important.
Preparing Teens For Parenthood
Fears about the future are common among new mothers—and pregnant teens too. Even before the birth, they may begin to feel isolated from their peers, and frustrated by the many restrictions that pregnancy imposes. While they’re lying on an examining table at the doctor’s or attending a Lamaze class, their friends are out partying and having fun. “A great deal of envy and resentment often emerges,” says Dr. Brindis.
Indications of emotional conflicts should be brought to the obstetrician’s attention no less promptly than you would report a physical ailment. A fullservice practice might have a mental-health counselor available. If not, an anxious or depressed patient would be referred out to the appropriate professional.
It’s now, before the baby is born, that someone in the family should start investigating what support services the community offers to young couples or single parents with children. Naturally the number of programs will vary widely, depending on where they live. But compared to a generation ago, you’re liable to be happily surprised at how much help may be waiting.
If there’s a social worker on staff, you’re in luck. Social workers act as case managers; their job is to link eligible patient-clients with available support services. Usually, though, this task falls to a parent or other family member. A good place to start your search is at your teenager’s school. In response to the epidemic of adolescent pregnancies, a number of districts have established programs geared toward improving the quality of life for teen parents and their children. Here are some examples:
- Child-care programs, so that the parents can continue to attend school
- Classes in parenting skills and child development
- Child health care
- Counseling in life skills such as problem solving, decision making and interpersonal relationships
- Job-training programs
- Assistance in finding employment
- Bus transportation to and from school
- Tuition and child care during summer school
- Tutorial assistance
- Baby-sitting services
Few school programs offer all of these features. Many districts may fund none at all. You’ll most likely wind up cobbling together several services from a variety of government and private resources, such as:
- Your state, county or city department of social services
- The U.S. Department of health and human services
- Catholic charities USA, the largest private network of social-services organizations in the united states
- United way of America, a national network of local charity organizations
Getting Young Fathers Involved
You may have noticed someone’s conspicuous absence from this discussion so far: namely, the young man who is equally responsible for bringing a new life into the world.
When a baby is born out of wedlock and it is clear that the parents have no intention of marrying, too often the father is instantly absolved of his obligations toward both mother and child. Other times a teenager will want to be involved in raising the child, but he gets nudged aside—if not actively pushed away, then never invited in. Either way, his exclusion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some boys may feel too frightened or too guilty to make their interest and concern known. It is sometimes overlooked that this can be a traumatic time for the prospective father as well as for the pregnant girl. He, too, will need his parents’ love and support during this crisis.
Many times it’s the baby’s grandparents, not the mother, who seek to cut the teen father out of the picture. “There can be a strong sense of anger and resentment on the grandparents’ part for his having gotten the girl pregnant,” says Dr. Brindis. “But they have to recognize that the child will benefit from having both parents involved, as well as both sets of grandparents.”
No one is advocating that we pressure expectant couples to marry when the two teens involved clearly have no future together. That would merely be compounding one mistake with another. “But even if the father isn’t in a position to help support the baby economically,” suggests Dr. Brindis, “he can provide emotional support and physical support, in terms of changing diapers and taking care of the child. That’s extremely important.”
What Will The Future Hold?
Take heart in the fact that success stories abound. There are single teenage mothers who complete their educations and go on to carve out happy lives rich with accomplishments, just as there are young marrieds who buck the odds and not only survive but thrive together.
You can lend support by helping your youngster avoid the pitfalls that trip up other teenagers. The first and foremost priority is to avoid having more children before having entered into a stable marriage—and a steady source of income. Encourage him or her to get a high-school diploma, then a college degree. Assist in accessing the support services described earlier, to ease their load now, when it’s at its heaviest. With you behind them, your child and your grandchild can look forward to brighter prospects than many other teens in similar straits could. They’re lucky to have you!