The nutritional requirements of adolescence are distinctly heightened to support this phase of rapid growth and development. Adding pregnancy to the equation greatly magnifies the energy and nutrient needs of the young mother-to-be. Do you know how to manage a healthy pregnancy at a very young age? Read on for facts about teenage pregnancy and tips to promote optimal outcomes for you and your baby.
‘Could I be pregnant? What are the signs of pregnancy?’
You’ve surely heard about the classic sign of pregnancy, namely missing one or more menstrual periods. But if you’re a teen, your menstrual cycle may not be regular yet, which means that a missed period doesn’t make you officially pregnant. So, relax because being stressed out can actually delay your menses.
Your menstrual cycle may also be erratic if your body fat is too low. That could happen if you’re an athlete who trains a lot and/or if you have an eating disorder like anorexia. You see, when you do not have sufficient body fat stores your body cannot make sufficient hormones for ovulation to take place, and without ovulation the miracle of life cannot occur. (That doesn’t mean you can starve yourself or exercise excessively in order not to get pregnant. That could cause serious damage to your vital organs and may even lead to infertility.)
Other signs of pregnancy include:
- Morning sickness (nausea or vomiting). This one is a misnomer — morning sickness can hit you anytime throughout the day.
- Increased need to pee.
- Sore, swollen or tender nipples or breasts.
- Feeling unusually tired.
- Experiencing atypical mood swings.
Yep, the last three symptoms can also mean your time of the month is near.
So, how can you really tell if you’re expecting? The best thing would be to do a pregnancy test — you can get home pregnancy test kits from drugstores. These are generally considered accurate and are easy to use.
Medical risks and realities of teenage pregnancy
Teen pregnancy often comes with unique complications for the young mum and her baby, especially if the teenager is not getting adequate prenatal care. If you’re pregnant, try to get your parents’ or a close relative’s support and make sure to attend all your routine prenatal check-ups. The aim of prenatal care is to detect any medical issue with you or your baby, monitor the baby’s development and intervene promptly should any complication arise.
Pregnancy induced hypertension and preeclampsia
Compared to pregnant women in their 20s, pregnant teens are more vulnerable to high blood pressure. They are also at higher risks of preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition characterised by a rapid increase in blood pressure accompanied by protein loss via urine. This can lead to premature birth, seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and maternal or foetal death. Medication may be required to control the symptoms and prevent any harm to the developing baby.
Teenagers are more likely to go into labour prematurely especially if they have a poor diet or if they were underweight prior to pregnancy. A premature baby — one born before the 37th week of gestation — is more vulnerable to respiratory diseases and infections as well as cognitive and vision problems.
Low birth weight baby
Since teenagers are still growing, they are at higher risks of delivering a low birth weight baby — one who weighs less than 2.5kg. Low birth weight infants are very fragile and more prone to infections, respiratory and health problems. According to studies, these babies are more likely to suffer from developmental delays, poor language development, behavioural disorders and they may score lower at school. And if the baby’s weight is less than 1.5kg, she/he may have trouble breathing and may need ventilator support.
Compared to babies born with a normal weight, low birth weight infants are at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure later in life.
Neural tube defects (NTDs)
Teenage pregnancies are often unplanned and young girls might enter pregnancy with a low folate status, predisposing their baby to births defects known as neural tube defects, which occur when a baby’s brain and spinal cord fail to fully develop.
Teenagers are more vulnerable to depression after giving birth. Feeling depressed may prevent you from taking care of your baby and may also interfere with your own healthy development. But it can be treated so if you feel depressed either during or after your pregnancy, confide in your GP or someone you trust.
How to lower your risks
- Steer clear of drugs (cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy etc) and avoid smoking as soon as you know you’re pregnant: Doing so will reduce your baby’s risks of malnutrition, birth defects, mental retardation, intellectual impairment and respiratory distress. This may also decrease your risks of delivering a premature and/or a low birth weight baby.
- Don’t drink any alcohol when pregnant: This will protect your baby from foetal alcohol syndrome, a cluster of permanent birth defects (physical, cognitive and behavioural).Scared of your peers’ reaction? Tell them that you’re only looking out for your baby and explain how these substances can have severe lifelong effects on your future child. Confiding in your doctor or a close friend can also make things easier.
- Take your prenatal vitamins, especially folic acid and vitamin D: Taking folic acid pills (400 micrograms daily) when pregnant will help protect your baby from neural tube defects. Vitamin D is also recommended to support the development of your baby’s bones and teeth. If you’re on a budget you can contact Healthy Start for help with prenatal vitamins.
- Enjoy a nutritious diet.
Nutritional needs of the pregnant teenager
A balanced and nutritious diet is a cornerstone of good prenatal care and healthy nutrition becomes even more crucial if you’re a teenage mother-to-be.
Folate is the natural form of folic acid. You can get it from pulses, papaya, oranges, green leafy vegetables like spinach and edamame.
Don’t like veggies? Make a green smoothie — no, you won’t taste the greens — by blending a banana, 1-2 cups of spinach (or any green veggie), your favourite fruit and a cup of water. You can also add some raw cocoa powder and some nuts. Or throw some veggies in your stews or soups.
As your body changes weekly you may feel tempted to restrict your intake but if you do, remember that this can hamper your baby’s development and your own. Without sufficient calories, your body won’t be able to efficiently use the nutrients from your diet — this could cause your baby to be malnourished.
So, how many calories will you need?
An extra daily 200kcal in your third trimester. If you were underweight prior to pregnancy, you may need more than that. Talk to your GP or midwife if you’re concerned about your weight.
What’s in 200kcal?
1/3 cup mixed nuts and dried fruits; ½ whole grain English muffin with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter 1 slice of whole-wheat bread with ½ portion of chicken salad and an apple
Not all calories are equal
Sure, foods like crisps, coke, chips, cookies and pizzas can help you meet your energy requirements but these processed foods are empty calories — they contain only calories and are devoid of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in fresh foods. In other words, these foods won’t contribute to the healthy growth and development of your baby. In fact, they might actually impair the baby’s health as they are usually loaded with chemical additives. And they also come with lots of added fats and sugars that can cause excessive weight gain.
Instead of coke, try adding a few lemon wedges and honey to a glass of cold sparkling water. Diet versions of soft drinks are not healthier alternatives — they contain artificial sweeteners, some of which may harm your baby (like aspartame, saccharin and cyclamate).
Instead of fruit juices, savour a cold fruit smoothie made using some milk or yogurt, a banana and a portion of your favourite fruit.
Instead of pizza, spread some tomato salsa on wholegrain pita bread, top with veggies and meat and sprinkle some cheese before pan-grilling for a few minutes.
Protein and iron
Most teenagers can easily meet their protein requirements from fresh chicken, turkey, beef, fish, eggs, dairy products, pulses, beans and nuts. These foods are also rich in iron but since teenagers are prone to iron-deficiency anaemia, your GP may recommend an iron tablet.
To maximise iron absorption, include a vitamin C containing food (any fruit or veggie with a yellow, orange, red or green colour) at each meal and avoid drinking tea or coffee 1-2 hours before and after your meals.
Avoid taking high-protein supplements: routine ingestion of these products has been linked to an increased risk for preterm birth.
You will need this mineral to help your baby grow strong bones, so try to consume a dairy product once or twice a day or have at least three servings of green leafy veggies daily. Calcium fortified products can also do the trick.
A few more tips
- Don’t skip your three main meals and have at least two healthy snacks every day.
- Eat a balanced diet — refer to the Eatwell Guide for serving size.
- Eat two fruits and at least three veggies every day.
- Drink lots of water — your urine should be clear and odourless.
- Enjoy sweet and fatty foods as treats, not daily.
- Never hesitate to ask for support.
Burchett H and Seeley A (2003) Good Enough to eat? The diet of pregnant teenagers (Accessed August 2013).
Swann C, Bowe K, McCormick G and Kosmin M (2003) Teenage pregnancy and parenthood: a review of reviews (Accessed August 2013). Health Development Agency.