THURSDAY, Aug. 10, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Many pregnant teenage girls have unrealistic views of how their lives will be with a new baby, a new study finds.
For example, some teens surveyed for the study felt they were prepared for the changes ahead and thought that having a baby would enhance their "connectedness" to other people in their lives, including their boyfriends.
"The youngest girls were less likely to identify themselves as being unprepared," said the study's lead author, Cynthia Rosengard, a researcher in internal medicine at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Brown Medical School in Providence. "Because they're not cognitively at the level of understanding the realities of parenting, our prevention messages need to be as salient as possible."
The study was published in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.
While U.S. teen pregnancy rates have been declining, an estimated 800,000 American females under the age of 20 get pregnant each year. Nearly 500,000 of those pregnancies result in live births, according to background information for the study.
Teens often don't seek early prenatal care, may not take proper care of themselves, and are at higher risk of having a low birth-weight infant, according to the study.
"Clearly, understanding adolescents' attitudes toward and motivations for pregnancy may aid in efforts to educate adolescents regarding the realities of teen pregnancy/parenting and reduce the negative health consequences of teenage childbearing in the United States," the study authors wrote.
To assess what the teens were thinking about parenthood at this time in their lives, Rosengard and her colleagues interviewed 247 pregnant teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19. Nearly one in four pregnancies was intended.
The researchers asked the teens to complete a survey giving demographic information, and then asked them open-ended questions about their attitudes toward teen pregnancy and what they thought were the advantages and disadvantages.
The answers to the questions varied, according to Rosengard, but some common themes emerged from the responses.
Many teens felt that having a baby would enhance their connections with others, such as enabling them to create a family or get closer to a boyfriend. Some teens also felt that because they would be so close in age, they could be friends with their children.
Some girls felt that having a baby early would give them more time to accomplish goals later in life. Dr. Irwin Benuck, an attending pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said one girl's response was particularly illustrative of the disconnect that expectant teen mothers' seem to have about the realities of single parenthood.
"If I have a [sic] infant now, later on when I want to become a lawyer, my baby will be old enough," said the 15-year-old.
Another young woman said having a baby would make her more responsible and hopefully keep her out of trouble.
"I think it will keep me away from doing bad things like drinking alcohol and/or doing drugs. It will make me more responsible, and I'll learn how to depend on myself more," the 18-year-old said.
Not all the teens thought having a baby at such a young age was a positive event. In fact, overall, the teenagers were able to name more disadvantages than advantages, the study found.
For instance, many of the young women said the additional responsibilities would cause them to lose out on a typical adolescence. Some acknowledged that they might have to drop out of school to care for the baby and would have to reassess their life goals.
About half of the girls over 18 felt they weren't prepared for motherhood, while just 35 percent of teens under 16 felt that way. Hispanic teens were the least likely to feel unprepared for the responsibilities of motherhood.
Rosengard pointed out that because this survey was done with pregnant teens, the results don't necessarily apply for teens who haven't become pregnant or have terminated a pregnancy.
Benuck said he thought it would be interesting to learn about teen fathers' attitudes toward teen pregnancy. Efforts at teen-pregnancy prevention "will be enhanced if you know what they see as good and bad of the situation, he said.
"Clinicians should be aware of the perception of advantages teens have and develop strategies to discuss how these perceived advantages aren't really advantages and to emphasize the disadvantages," Benuck added.
To learn more about teen pregnancy, visit the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.