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Pregnancy before the age of 18 or after the age of 35 increases the health risks for the mother and her baby.
Every year over 500,000 women die from pregnancy and childbirth complications. For every woman who dies, approximately 20 more develop infections and severe disabling problems – adding up to more than 10 million women affected each year. Access to and use of family planning services could prevent many of these deaths and disabilities.
Throughout this publication, references to pregnant women include pregnant adolescents.
It is important to note that the pregnant adolescent is at increased risk of pregnancy complications such as eclampsia, premature labour, prolonged labour, obstructed labour, fistula, anaemia and death.
For her baby, there is a greater risk of premature birth, low birthweight, health problems and death.
For the pregnant adolescent under 15 years of age, these risks increase substantially.
Delaying a first pregnancy until a girl is at least 18 years of age helps to ensure a safer pregnancy and childbirth. It reduces the risk of her baby being born prematurely and/or underweight. This is especially important where early marriage is the custom and married adolescents face pressure to become pregnant.
Childbirth is more likely to be difficult and dangerous for an adolescent than for an adult. Babies born to very young mothers are much more likely to die in the first year of life. Young adolescents do not yet have a fully developed pelvis. Pregnancy for them can result in serious consequences, such as eclampsia, premature labour, prolonged labour, obstructed labour, fistula, anaemia (thin blood) or infant and/or maternal death.
The younger the mother is, the greater the risk to her and her baby. The risk of maternal death related to pregnancy and childbirth for adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years of age accounts for some 70,000 deaths each year. For adolescents under 15 years of age these risks increase substantially. Girls who give birth before age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties.
Adolescent girls and young women, married or unmarried, need special help to delay pregnancy. All who might be involved with an early pregnancy – adolescent girls and young women and adolescent boys and men as well as their families – should be aware of the risks involved and how to avoid them. This should include information on how to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
After the age of 35, the health risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth begin to increase again. The risks may include hypertension (high blood pressure), haemorrhage (loss of blood), miscarriage and gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) for the woman and congenital anomalies (birth defects) for the child.