A new HEAL study is shedding light on the challenges faced by pregnant teens despite falling rates of teenage pregnancy.

The study found that teenage pregnancy is associated with a higher risk of socioeconomic disadvantage, mental health problems and substance use during pregnancy, but is largely unrelated to adverse birth outcomes in SWO.

“Unfortunately, declining rates of teenage pregnancy means that the issue has received minimal attention in recent years with respect to social policy,” said Dr. Jamie Seabrook, scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute and Professor at the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences, Brescia University College.

The study, which can be read here, focuses on a large sample of pregnancies from across southwestern Ontario between 2009 and 2014.

Researchers looked at data from more than 25,000 patients at the London Heath Sciences Centre. Of those pregnancies 1,080 were patients who were 19 years old or younger.

Teenage pregnant women were much more likely than older pregnant women to live in poor, disadvantaged neighbourhoods across Southwestern Ontario. They were also more likely to have a history of depression and had higher rates of depression during pregnancy, with 10 per cent on medication while pregnant. Looking at substance use, 41 per cent of teenage women smoked cigarettes, 13 per cent used cannabis and 7 per cent drank alcohol during pregnancy, which was significantly higher than rates for older pregnant women.

Once adjusted for other medical, behavioural and economic factors, teenage pregnancy was not associated with a higher risk for preterm birth or low birth weight compared to pregnancy for women ages 20-34 years. However, the infants had a higher risk of low Apgar scores.

An Apgar score, a test given to newborns soon after birth, indicates how well the baby is doing outside of the womb. Babies with very low Apgar scores are more likely to need assistance with breathing. However, Apgar scores have little correlation with the long-term health of the baby.

“There are so many factors associated with poor birth outcomes, and the advantage of our sample size and statistical modelling was that we were able to include key medical and behavioural factors which play a larger role than age,” said Brescia’s Dr. Jasna Twynstra in a release.

“Although our study adds to the limited research on teenage pregnancy and birth outcomes, the findings are only from Southwestern Ontario,” adds Dr. Seabrook. “We are currently working on a systematic review and meta-analysis of all studies conducted in Canada on the relationship between teenage pregnancies and adverse birth outcomes to determine whether our findings here are consistent with what’s happening across the country.”

We hope the study reopens discussion on this important issue so that work can be done to improve the overall health of teenage pregnant women and their children. “We need to target teenage mental illness, as well as their high substance use during pregnancy, to minimize the impact on their overall health and wellbeing,” says Dr. Seabrook.

The study, “Risk Factors and Birth Outcomes Associated with Teenage Pregnancy: A Canadian Sample,” was published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology and featured on CTV News and Lawson Media Release.