When Your Teen Is Having a Baby
August 23, 2004, KidsHealth.org

"Mom, I'm having a baby."

For some parents, these are among the words they fear most from their teen. Finding out your child is pregnant and planning to have the baby means that a lot of things are going to change in your family. And though it's certainly not what most parents expect, it happens every day: nearly half a million teenage girls give birth every year.

If your teen is about to become a parent, it can be overwhelming for both of you. How can you support your child through the changes and challenges that are ahead?

What You May Be Feeling
Parents have a wide range of reactions when they find out their teen is having a baby. Some are shocked and upset over the news, and angry at their teen for having been "irresponsible." Some feel a sense of disappointment and grief, knowing that the dreams they held for their child are about to change forever. Some worry about the future - will their teen be able to handle the demands of parenthood? Will they finish school? Go on to college? Get a good job?

Still other parents feel a sense of guilt, as if their teen's pregnancy represents some failure in their own parenting. They may think that if only they'd done more to protect their child, this wouldn't have happened. And although some parents are embarrassed by their teen's pregnancy and worried about how family, friends, and neighbors will react, others are happy over the news of a soon-to-be grandchild - especially if the teen is older and in a mature relationship.

Whether you feel one or all of these emotions, you're not alone - this is likely to be a difficult time in the life of almost any family. The important thing to realize is that your teen needs you now more than ever. Being able to communicate with each other - especially when emotions are running high - is essential. Teens who are carrying their baby to term have special health concerns, and your child will have a healthier pregnancy - emotionally and physically - if she knows she doesn't have to go it alone. Without parental support, some teens are more likely to make bad decisions with even worse consequences (like running away).

So what can you do as the parent of a teen having a baby? Recognize your feelings and work through them so that you can accept and support your child. Does that mean you don't have the right to feel disappointed and even angry? No. Such reactions are common and not unexpected. You might have a strong flood of emotions to deal with, especially at first. But the reality of the upcoming baby means that you'll have to get beyond your initial feelings for the sake of your teen and her child.

If you need help coping with your feelings about the situation, talk to someone you trust or seek professional counseling. A neutral third party can be a great resource at a time like this.

What Your Teen May Be Feeling
Just a short time ago your teen's biggest concern might have been hanging out with her friends and wondering what clothes to wear. Now she's dealing with morning sickness and scheduling prenatal visits. If you think your world has been turned upside down, can you imagine what your teen might be feeling?

Most unmarried teens don't plan on becoming pregnant, and they're often terrified when it happens. Many, particularly younger teens, keep the news of their pregnancies secret because they fear the anger and disappointment of their parents. Some might even deny to themselves that they are pregnant - which makes it even more important for parents to step in and find medical care for their teen as early in the pregnancy as possible. Younger teens' pregnancies, in particular, are considered high risk, because their bodies haven't finished growing and are not yet fully mature.

Teen boys who are going to become fathers also need the involvement of their parents. Although some boys may welcome the chance to be involved with their children, others feel frightened and guilty and may need to be encouraged to face their responsibilities (the father is legally responsible for child support in every state). That doesn't mean, however, that you should pressure your teen son or daughter into an unwanted marriage. Offer advice, but remember that forcing your opinions on your teen or using threats is likely to backfire in the long run. There's no "one size fits all" solution here. Open communication between you and your teen will help as you consider the future.

Special Concerns of Pregnant Teens
Even though most teen girls are biologically able to produce healthy babies, whether they do often depends on whether they've received adequate medical care - especially in those critical early months of pregnancy. Teens who receive proper medical care and take care of themselves are more likely to have healthy babies. Those who don't receive medical care are at greater risk for:
[list][*]fetal death [*]high blood pressure [*]anemia [*]labor and delivery complications (such as premature labor and stillbirth)[/list:u]
The earlier your teen gets prenatal care, the better her chances for a healthy pregnancy, so bring your teen to the doctor as soon as possible after finding out she's pregnant. If you need help finding medical care, check with social service groups in the community or in your child's school.

Your teen's health care provider can tell your teen what to expect during her pregnancy, how to take care of herself and her growing baby, and how to prepare for life as a parent. Some topics that will be addressed include:

Medical Care
At her first prenatal visit, your teen will probably be given a full physical exam, including blood and urine tests. She'll be screened for sexually transmitted diseases and for exposure to certain diseases, such as measles, mumps, and rubella. Her health care provider will also discuss:
[list][*]how often prenatal visits should be scheduled [*]what she may be feeling physically and emotionally [*]what changes she can expect in her body [*]how to deal with some of the uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy, like nausea and vomiting[/list:u]
Knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the fears your teen may have about being pregnant. Your teen's health care provider will also likely prescribe a daily prenatal vitamin to make sure she gets enough folic acid, iron, and calcium. Folic acid is especially important during the early weeks of pregnancy, when it plays a role in the healthy development of the neural tube (the structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord).

Lifestyle Changes
Your teen's health care provider will also discuss the lifestyle changes your teen will have to make for the health of her baby, including:
[list][*]not smoking (smoking while pregnant increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome.) [*]not drinking (alcohol causes mental and physical birth defects) [*]not using drugs (drugs are associated with pregnancy complications and fetal death) [*]avoiding excess caffeine (too much caffeine has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage) [*]eating right [*]getting enough rest [*]avoiding risky sexual behaviors (such as having unsafe sex)[/list:u]
If your teen smokes or uses alcohol or other drugs, her health care provider can offer ways to help her quit.

Nutrition
Fast food, soft drinks, sweets - teen diets are notoriously unbalanced. Eating well greatly increases your teen's chances of having a healthy baby, so encourage her to maintain a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads (use the Food Guide Pyramid as a basic guide). Some important nutrients include proteins (lean meat, fish, poultry, egg whites, beans, peanut butter, tofu); calcium (milk and other dairy products); iron (lean red meats, spinach, iron-fortified cereals); and folic acid (green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, fortified cereals). Drinking plenty of water is essential, too.

Pregnancy is not the time for your teen to go on a diet. Many teen girls worry about getting fat, and eating disorders and body image problems are prevalent in this age group. When pregnant, some teens might be tempted to counter normal pregnancy weight gain by cutting calories or overexercising - both of which can seriously harm their babies. If you suspect that your teen has an unhealthy preoccupation with her weight, talk to her health care provider immediately.

Exercise
If your teen was physically fit before getting pregnant and is not experiencing any pregnancy complications, her health care provider will probably encourage her to continue exercising. Most women benefit from exercising throughout their pregnancy, although they might have to modify their activity. Should your teen try out for the gymnastics team now that she's pregnant? Probably not. Low-impact exercises, such as walking and swimming, are best. Have your teen discuss her exercise plans with her health care provider early on.

Stress
Most teens enter parenthood unprepared for the stress a new baby brings, and many experience frustration, resentment, and even anger toward their newborns - which may explain why teen parents are at higher risk for abusing and neglecting their babies. Teach your teen to manage her stress levels so that she can better cope with the changes in her life.

Prenatal Classes
Because teens often have unrealistic expectations of how life will be with a baby, your teen's health care provider will probably recommend that she take classes on pregnancy, giving birth, and parenting. These classes (some of which are held just for teens) help prepare teens for the practical side of parenthood by teaching such skills as feeding, diapering, child safety, and other basic baby care techniques.

Preparing for New Responsibilities
Although much of the stigma associated with being a teen parent has decreased in our society, having a baby - even with parental support - isn't easy. There are many practical issues to consider. Will your teen keep the baby or consider adoption? If she keeps it, will she raise it herself? Will she continue to go to school? Will the father be involved in the baby's life? Who will be financially responsible for the baby?

The answers to these questions often depend on the support your teen receives. Some teens raise their child alone, some have the involvement of the baby's father, and some rely on their families for support. As a parent, you need to think about your own level of involvement and commitment and discuss it with your teen. How much support - financial and otherwise - are you willing and able to offer? Will your teen and her child live with you? Will you help pay for food, clothing, doctor visits, and necessary items like a car seat and stroller? Can you assist with child care while your teen is at school and/or work? A social worker or counselor can help you and your teen sort through some of these issues.

If at all possible, it's best for teens who are pregnant to finish school so they can get better jobs and create a better life for themselves and their baby. This is no easy task; 80% of all pregnant teens drop out of school. But going back once you quit is even harder, so if you can offer your child the support she needs to stay in school, both she and the baby will benefit. Check for school and community programs that offer special services for teen mothers, such as child care, rides, or tutoring.

Help your teen understand that, as rewarding as having a child is, it isn't always fun - caring for a baby is a huge responsibility and a lifelong commitment. Prepare your teen for the reality that she won't have as much time for the things she used to do - that her life is about change and the baby will take priority.

As a parent, you can have a great impact on your teen's life and on her baby's. You may still wish that your child had made different choices. But by supporting your teen, making sure she gets good prenatal care, and listening as she shares her fears and anxieties, both of you may find that you're better parents in the long run.