Teenagers and pregnancy

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This article looks at teenagers & pregnancy and provides advice for teenagers on how to care for themselves and their babies during pregnancy.

Teenage pregnancies in New Zealand

New Zealand has a very high teenage pregnancy rate (along with USA and UK). Of course, not all teenage pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted, but they can cause a lot of stress both for the individual young parents and their families.

Every teenager in New Zealand, like every other pregnant mother, is entitled to a Lead Maternity Carer (LMC), who is usually a midwife or occasionally a family doctor or specialist. This LMC will ensure that you get the care you need during pregnancy and that you understand choices available to you. See below for a link to find out more about choosing the right LMC.

There are special considerations for health, during a teenage pregnancy

  • Nutritional needs of the growing teenagers and the growing baby have to be met
  • The pregnancy may be taking place at a time when you or your friends are experimenting with drugs and alcohol
  • Teenage years can be emotionally stressful too – without the added burden of a pregnancy to cope with.

Teenage pregnancy – stressful decisions

You may be reading this article having already decided whether or not you are going to continue with your pregnancy.

If you are undecided about what to do, remember you do have choices –

  • You can keep your baby and bring up your baby yourself, hopefully with some great support from friends and family
  • You can continue with your pregnancy and then have your baby adopted by another family
  • You can continue with your pregnancy, but have your baby brought up by another family member.
  • You may decide to terminate your pregnancy (have an abortion). In New Zealand this is legal at any age, with or without your parents’ consent, so long as 2 doctors agree that continuing with your pregnancy would be a danger to your physical or mental health. You are entitled to see another doctor if your own doctor does not agree with abortion.

If at all possible, your parents really are the best people to talk to. They may be angry with you to begin with, but they love you more than anyone. Alternatively try your teacher or school nurse, your family doctor or a family planning centre. These can be found in the Yellow Pages or on the web.

Whatever your decisions, the more support you have the better.

Nutritional advice for a teenage pregnancy

Teenagers, like any mums, have special nutritional needs when they are pregnant and may need advice about which foods to eat.

Calcium in a teenage pregnancy

For women age 20 and over their calcium needs are the same when pregnant as when they are not pregnant, as calcium is absorbed and retained more efficiently during pregnancy. Teenage mothers, however, have higher calcium needs because their bones are growing at the same time as their body is developing the new baby.

Teenagers who are pregnant need to aim for 4 servings of dairy foods each day, instead of the recommended 3 servings of dairy foods for pregnant women over 19 years of age.

A serving of dairy food is:

  • 250 ml milk
  • 2 scoops of ice-cream (140grams)
  • 1 pottle yoghurt (150g)
  • 200 grams cottage cheese or ricotta
  • 2 slices cheese (40g)
  • 250 ml calcium fortified soy milk

Rich dietary sources of calcium should be included in the diet every day, such as dairy products – milk, cheese and yoghurt.

If you do not eat dairy products other rich sources include:

  • calcium fortified soy milk
  • canned fish with bones
  • nuts*, such as almonds
  • green leafy vegetables
  • dried fruit
  • tofu
  • wholegrain breads and cereals

Iron in a teenage pregnancy

Iron is another essential nutrient to take in pregnancy. Your haemoglobin level will be checked regularly in pregnancy by your LMC, indicating whether you are short of iron, in which case you will be prescribed an iron supplement.

Iron requirements increase in pregnancy due to the needs of the growing baby and the mother’s increased blood volume. Iron requirements are even higher in the last 3 months of pregnancy, when the baby starts to lay down important stores of iron.

Try to ensure you take an iron rich diet as supplements can cause diarrhoea / constipation.

There are two types of dietary iron in the food we eat:

Iron from animal based foods

The iron that comes from red meat, chicken and fish is easily absorbed and used by the body. The best sources include:

  • beef, lamb & chicken
  • fish and mussels (must be cooked and served hot and eaten immediately)
  • liver (limit to 100g per week due to high vitamin A levels and ensure it is well cooked, served hot and eaten immediately after cooking).

Iron from plant based foods

Good sources of this iron include:

  • wholegrain breads and cereals (especially breakfast cereals with iron added)
  • vegetables and legumes (dried beans)
  • dried fruit, nuts* and seeds

As the iron found in plant based foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron found in red meat, chicken or fish, you need to include a food which is high in Vitamin C at the same meal to assist the iron absorption. This can be achieved by including one of the following at meal times: fruit juice, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh or dried fruit.

It is really important that you have a good iron level before you go into labour to ensure that you do not bleed a lot (have a haemorrhage). If you are taking supplements, follow the advice you have been given from the midwife or doctor and don’t forget the vitamin C, which is found in oranges, kiwifruit and salads.

Folic acid (folate) in a teenage pregnancy

Folate is a B vitamin which women require in increased amounts during pregnancy – to assist with cell division in the baby. Low levels are associated with neural tube defects which are disorders of the spine or skull – for example, spina bifida.

It is difficult to ensure you get the increased amounts of folate during pregnancy from your food alone. Therefore in New Zealand it is recommended that all women should take a 800µg (0.8mg) folic acid tablet daily for at least 4 weeks before and 12 weeks after conception, as well as consuming foods rich in folate.

Obviously if your pregnancy was not planned then there is nothing that can be done about the time before the baby was conceived, but it is worth starting folic acid as soon as you suspect you may be pregnant. It is either obtained by prescription, or bought over the counter at the pharmacy.

If anyone in your family has a history of spina bifida you should take a higher dose (5mg) of folic acid daily.

The main dietary sources of folate in New Zealand include:

  • green leafy vegetables (wash well before use)
  • citrus fruit
  • wholegrain breads
  • legumes (dried beans)
  • folic acid fortified foods, such as some breakfast cereals and juices
  • liver – but limit to 100g per week due to high vitamin A levels. Liver needs to be well cooked, served hot and eaten immediately after cooking.

*Nuts and food allergies

It is recommended that pregnant women in families with a family history of conditions such as hay fever, eczema or asthma should avoid peanuts and peanut products during pregnancy and breast feeding.

The most effective protection against food allergies is to fully breast feed for the first 6 months.

Drugs and alcohol in teenage pregnancy

During the first 3 months of pregnancy (also called the first trimester) your baby is developing their own heart, liver, brain and all the other organs needed for survival. It is really important that you keep yourself as healthy as possible during this time, to increase your chances of a healthy baby. Often young mothers do not even know they are pregnant during these early months, but as soon as you suspect you are pregnant, it is so important that you cut out any drugs, cigarettes or alcoholic drinks while you make your decisions about what you want to do about your pregnancy.

If you did not know you were pregnant and took alcohol or drugs during early pregnancy there is nothing you can do to ‘turn back the clock’. But what you can do to help is –

  • Be honest with your midwife or doctor about what drink or drugs you took in early pregnancy and they can advise you about how much is a risk to your baby – they may be able to put your mind at rest.
  • Stop drinking alcohol, smoking or taking any drugs straight away. If you need help with this then contact your Lead Maternity Carer who will be able to refer you for alcohol or drug counselling.
  • If you have been mixing with a group of friends who are messing with drugs and alcohol think about whether these mates are the people you want to be with right now. You’re going to need lots of support during the pregnancy and particularly after the birth if you decide to bring up your baby yourself. You’re going to need great mates!

Useful articles for pregnant teenagers

Choosing an LMC explains the right of every woman in New Zealand to choose her own lead carer during pregnancy, birth and afterwards.

Am I Pregnant? helps you to decide whether it is likely that you are pregnant

To understand more about the trimesters of pregnancy information mentioned in this article, have a look at The three Trimesters.

Paula Skelton

Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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