The Teenage Mom

Even though they have steadily declined in the last ten years, teen birth rates in the United States remain high enough to be considered a public health problem. Pregnant teenagers are at a higher risk than healthy adult women for several reasons. Not only is the mother at risk, but the health of the baby can also be jeopardized. Teenaged girls have most likely not completed their own growth process. Adding pregnancy to a period of rapid growth and development of a teen certainly increases nutritional demands. In particular, the reproductive system is stressed as it is still in its own early development.

Risk Factors

Too often, teenage girls have poor eating habits and do not take daily multivitamin supplements. Coupled with higher nutritional needs, that can lead to possible complications. Other risk factors that can lead to a poor outcome for pregnant teens include the following:

  • Extreme youth (younger than fifteen) and/or pregnancy less than two years after the onset of menstruation

  • Poor nutrition or being under- or overweight before pregnancy

  • Poor pregnancy weight gain

  • Bad health, including infections, sexually transmitted diseases, preexisting anemia, smoking, or alcohol or drug use

  • Poverty and lack of social support or appropriate healthcare

  • Lack of general education and age-appropriate prenatal care and nutritional education in particular

  • Rapid repeat pregnancies

More than a million teenage girls become pregnant each year. About 485,000 of these pregnancies result in live births.

It is a known fact that pregnant teens are least likely, out of all age groups, to get the proper prenatal care. The earlier teens get prenatal care, the better chance they have for a healthy pregnancy, delivery, and baby. Pregnant teens are at a greater risk for complications during pregnancy including premature labor, anemia, and hypertensive disorders such as high blood pressure and preeclampsia. Unfortunately, teenaged mothers are also more likely to drop out of school and to experience financial hardship.

It is essential that teens get involved in childbirth education classes that are specifically developed for the teenage population. These classes can teach teens vital information concerning pregnancy, good nutrition, and a healthy lifestyle, as well as the processes of giving birth and the factors involved in being a parent. Classes like this can also act as a support group.

Special Nutritional Needs

Dietary intake is one of the most important and one of the most controllable factors for a healthier outcome for both the baby and the young mother. As with all pregnancies, adequate calories, protein, water, fiber, and all nutrients are essential for a healthy pregnancy. It is even more important that a teen ensures a healthy diet to support her growing baby as well as her own nutritional needs.

Pregnant teens who are at a young gynecologic age (the number of years between the onset of the menstrual cycle and the date of conception) or who are underweight and/or undernourished at the time of conception will have the greatest nutritional needs. Pregnancy is a period for rapid growth, and so are the teen years. During this time, a pregnant teen's body can compete with the fetus for nutrients. When nutritional deficiencies are corrected or — better yet — prevented, not only will the growth of the young mother and the fetus improve, but the risk of complications will decrease.

The additional calorie needs during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy for older teens is 300 calories per day. As a general nutritional guideline, teen mothers should consume between 2,500 and 2,700 calories per day during pregnancy. The notorious teen diet, made up of fast foods, soft drinks, and excessive sweets, can be very unbalanced. A nutritious diet should come mostly from a balance of all of the food groups each day. Following the upper range of the number of servings from each food group in the Food Guide Pyramid can help teens to meet their needs.

Teens have higher calcium needs because of their own growing and developing bones. In addition, their babies will demand calcium for developing bones and teeth. The teen mother needs 1,300 mg of calcium per day; she should consume at least three or more dairy servings per day.

As with adult women, each individual teen requires different amounts of foods that provide key nutrients to achieve the desired amount of weight gain and support of the pregnancy. Many of the same nutrients that are essential for adult women are also essential for teens during pregnancy, including folic acid, iron, calcium, and calories. An early prenatal visit is vital so the doctor can prescribe a prenatal vitamin as soon as possible.

The key concern with teens is that many have poor nutritional intakes to begin with and so do not have the nutritional reserves of an adult woman. As with adult women, the Institute of Medicine recommends folic acid intake of 600 mcg for teens during pregnancy. An adequate amount of folic acid very early in pregnancy is vital to helping reduce the risk of birth defects of the spine and spinal cord. Since many women, especially teens, do not know they are pregnant right away, it is best for all to consume at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily.

Iron needs increase from 15 mg before pregnancy to 27 mg during pregnancy for teens. Many females, especially teens, do not get enough iron through the foods they eat and many enter pregnancy with lower-than-optimal iron stores. Iron is essential, and needs increase during pregnancy due to the increase in blood volume of the mother. Iron is essential for making hemoglobin, the component of blood that carries oxygen through the body and to the baby. Low iron stores, in addition to a low iron intake, can lead to anemia. A prenatal vitamin supplement during pregnancy will ensure that a teen receives all the nutrients she needs in amounts optimal to boost the probability of a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Healthier Tips

Many of the same lifestyle tips that pertain to adult females also pertain to teens during pregnancy. The following are tips to eating healthier that can help to make a pregnant teen's diet a bit more nutritious:

  • Don't skip meals.

  • Prepare sandwiches and burgers with extra veggies, such as lettuce, tomato, or onion.

  • Opt for grilled chicken breast instead of always choosing hamburgers.

  • Eat whole-grain or whole-wheat breads, rolls, bagels, and crackers.

  • Pile your pizza with loads of veggies such as mushrooms, green peppers, or sliced tomatoes instead of high-fat toppings such as pepperoni and sausage.

  • Drink 100-percent fruit juice, fat-free milk, vegetable juice, or water more often than soft drinks or coffee.

  • Eat fresh vegetables lightly steamed without butter or sauces.

  • Bake, grill, or broil meats rather than frying them.

  • Eat low-fat fruited yogurt or frozen yogurt instead of full-fat ice cream.

  • Instead of French fries, eat baked potatoes with low-fat toppings such as salsa. When eating out, choose a vegetable or side salad over fries.

  • Snack on fruit, vegetables, fruited yogurt, whole-grain bagel with peanut butter, pretzels, and other low-fat snacks instead of candy bars or cookies.

  • Even though many of the recommended nutrient intake amounts during pregnancy appear the same for younger women as for adult women, many of the recommended intakes for teens are lower than the adult's prior to pregnancy. This means that a teen's needs actually increase for many vitamins and minerals including calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, biotin, and iron.

    Weight Gain Is a Positive Thing

    Many studies show that teens are less likely than older women to gain an optimal and safe amount of weight during pregnancy. Not gaining enough weight can increase the risk of many health problems for the baby, including low birth weight and developmental problems. Therefore, proper weight gain for pregnant teens is vital for a healthy pregnancy.

    This can be a tricky subject for this age group because they are often worried about body image and deal with strong peer pressure. Eating disorders are especially prevalent among teenage girls. Some pregnant teens might be tempted to fight healthy pregnancy weight gain by drastically cutting calories or overexercising, both of which can do serious harm to the unborn baby. If a teen seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with her weight, her doctor should be contacted immediately so proper and immediate intervention can be provided.

    A teen at a healthy weight before becoming pregnant should gain between 30 to 35 pounds during the course of her pregnancy. For girls who are underweight before becoming pregnant, weight gain should be increased to 35 to 40 pounds. For teens who are overweight before becoming pregnant, weight gain should be about 20 to 25 pounds. Again, all teens are different, and each should discuss with her doctor the right amount of weight gain for her.

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