Teen motherhood's long-term impact

April 22, 2019
Rachael Zimlich, RN, BSN

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes regularly for Contemporary Pediatrics, Managed Healthcare Executive, and Medical Economics.

Teenaged moms may pass negative effects of young motherhood on to their children, and maybe even their grandchildren.

Negative cycles can be perpetuated when it comes to psychosocial development, and a new study reveals that children born to teenaged mothers-and even the grandchildren of teenaged mothers-often fall behind when it comes to education, leaving them at risk for lifelong disadvantages.

suggests that teenaged motherhood has a significant impact on childhood development-affecting children in the family for generations.

“When considering the social determinants of development in children, it is important to consider factors beyond those of the child’s immediate family,” says lead author Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in neonatal and developmental medicine at Stanford University, Stanford, California. “A family history of adolescent pregnancy, even if the mother was not an adolescent mother, is related to early childhood development.”

The aim of the study was to assess multigenerational outcomes associated with adolescent motherhood, and was conducted by comparing children and grandchildren of mothers who were aged 20 years or younger at the birth of their first child. Researchers found that children whose mothers and grandmothers were aged 20 years or younger at the birth of their first child were 35% more likely to be unprepared for school when compared with mothers and grandmothers who were aged older than 20 years when their first child was born. Children whose grandmothers were aged older than 20 years when their first child was born but whose mothers were aged younger than 20 years when their first child was born were 25% more likely to be unprepared for school than children born to mothers and grandmothers aged older than 20 years when their first child was born, according to the report.

Why young motherhood matters

School readiness at the time of school entry has a significant effect on how children perform throughout their educational career, the researchers say. Some factors previously linked to poor school readiness include living in poverty, low levels of parents’ education, family and neighborhood instability, and having mothers who were young when they began having children, the report notes.

Whereas young motherhood has previously been described as a risk factor for poor school readiness, this report shows that the effects of young motherhood can persist for generations.

“A greater percentage of children whose grandmothers had been adolescent mothers were not ready for school (36%) than those children whose grandmothers were aged 20 years or older when their first child was born (31%),” the researchers write.

The report also shows a trend in young motherhood, with 39.8% of children whose mothers had their first child before age 20 years also having grandmothers whose first child was born before age 20 years. In comparison, 21.6% of children whose mothers were aged 20 years or older when they were born had a grandmother who was aged younger than 20 years when her first child was born.

School readiness was highest among children whose mothers and grandmothers were not adolescent mothers, the study notes. Even when mothers were aged older than 20 years when an individual child was born, the study also reveals that school readiness was lower just by that mother having her first child overall before the age of 20 years.

Some of the individual factors noted that contributed to lower school readiness in the children studied were lower social competence, language and cognitive development, and poor physical well-being, the study points out.

Although the study did not investigate exactly why young motherhood threatens school readiness, the researchers note that this is just another cost to consider when assessing the effects of teenaged motherhood.

Wall-Wieler says the study underscores the need for pediatricians to assess family dynamics and offer early interventions.

“Pediatricians should pay close attention to the development of children whose mothers or grandmothers were adolescent mothers, and provide parents with information about programs like Head Start and Early Head Start that aim to increase school readiness,” she says. “Well-child visits present an opportunity for pediatricians to identify children who would benefit from Early Head Start and recommend these programs to families.”