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The sad consequences of kids having kids

When young girls have babies, the health of both mother and child are likely to suffer, reports Dr. Judith Reichman.

In (slightly belated) honor of Mother’s Day, I am focusing this week on the 2004 “State of the World’s Mothers” report, which was just released by the Save the Children organization.  I proudly serve on the group’s Board of Trustees.

Let me introduce you to Abeba, in Ethiopia, who never had a chance to be a child. She was married at 7, compelled to have sex at 9, and widowed at 12, just before the birth of her first child. She lost that baby after a difficult labor.

All too often, girls like Abeba are marrying and having children while still children themselves. Each year, one in every 10 births worldwide is to a teenage mother.

In developing countries, more than a million infants and an estimated 70,000 adolescent mothers die because the mothers are bearing children before they are physically ready for labor and delivery.

They face complications from obstructed labor — the inability to deliver a baby that’s too large to fit through its mother’s pelvis.

During delivery, these way-too-young mothers are prone to hemorrhage and infection, and are often left with genital tears (fistulas) that result in urinary and fecal incontinence.

Save the Children ranked 119 countries according to six indicators of women’s well-being:

  • lifetime risk of maternal mortality (dying during pregnancy or delivery)
  • percent of women using modern contraception
  • percent of births attended by trained personnel
  • percent of pregnant women with anemia
  • adult female literacy rate
  • participation of women in national government.

The rankings also included four indicators of children’s well-being:

  • infant mortality rate
  • primary school enrollment
  • access to safe water
  • percent of small children with nutritional wasting.

The worst-ranked countries were in sub-Saharan Africa. The best-ranked were the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Austria, Australia, Canada and the U.K. The U.S. placed a relatively lowly tenth.

Why didn’t we do better? Our national rate was lowered because of high adolescent birth rates in states with large populations of rural poor. These areas often have high rates of poverty and low levels of education.

The five worst states were Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas and New Mexico. The five best were New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Maine.

In the U.S., nearly 900,000 girls get pregnant each year. Eighty percent of these pregnancies are unintended.

Young motherhood is strongly correlated with poor education. Nearly a third of females who dropped out between 8th and 10th grade say they did so because they got pregnant. Only a third of all teenage mothers in the U.S. have a high school diploma.

Moreover, a third of pregnant adolescents don’t receive adequate prenatal care. Their babies are likely to have low birth weights and multiple health problems.

To break the cycle of poverty and hardship that accompanies children having children, it’s imperative that our government and non-profit organizations join together and make investing in girls’ education a priority. For girls who are already pregnant, health services should be readily accessible.

You can view the full report at www.savethechildren.org.

Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: Having a child before becoming an adult deprives girls both of childhood and many of the joyful experiences of motherhood. Advocating for the education of girls at home and abroad will help them and the children they bear.

Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You willl find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.