Children born to younger mothers at increased risk of developmental vulnerabilities

Neelima Choahan

7/05/2018 3:19:10 PM

A study of almost 100,000 NSW school children shows those born to teenage mothers have the highest risk of developmental vulnerabilities at age five, largely due to social and economic disadvantage.

Lead author Dr Kathleen Falster said social and economic disadvantage, including the mother’s and parents’ occupation, explains much of the increased risk to kids born to mums in their teens and 20s.
Lead author Dr Kathleen Falster said social and economic disadvantage, including the mother’s and parents’ occupation, explains much of the increased risk to kids born to mums in their teens and 20s.

Children born to teenaged mothers have the highest risk of ‘development vulnerabilities’ at age five – more than children born to women in their 40s – mainly due to social and economic disadvantage, a new study has found.
Lead author Dr Kathleen Falster, from University of NSW Centre for Big Data Research in Health and the Australian National University, told newsGP that while it is fairly well understood there are higher pregnancy and birth risks in the youngest and the oldest women, much less is known about how a mum’s age relates to her children’s outcomes beyond infancy.
‘For that reason we used data on almost 100,000 Australian kids to look at how a mother’s age is related to her child’s development in today’s population of children,’ Dr Falster explained.
‘We found that the lowest risk of developmental vulnerability – 17% – was among kids born to mums aged about 30 to 35. The highest risk – 40% – was for children of mothers 15 years or younger, and this was mostly underpinned by social and economic disadvantage.’
Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, ‘Maternal age and offspring developmental vulnerability at age five: A population-based cohort study of Australian children’ is said to be the largest ever carried out on early child development across the full range of maternal age.
The research analysed data from the Australian Early Developmental Census for 99,530 five-year-old children in their first year of school in NSW in 2009 or 2012, as well as their health and demographic data collected at birth.
For the census, teachers answered questions about a child’s development across five areas: physical health and wellbeing; emotional maturity; social competence; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.
Developmental vulnerability is defined as scoring in the lowest 10% in one or more five areas of development, based on 2009 standards.
Overall, 21% of the children in the study were identified as developmentally vulnerable in at least one of the five areas.
The risk declined steadily with every additional year of a mother’s age up to 30 years, then increased slightly after 35 years and older, to a level similar to the risk for children born to mothers in their early 20s.
‘Let’s say there are 20 children in a classroom: eight in 20 of the kids born to the very youngest mums were at risk, whereas if you look at those born to mums in their late 20s to mid-30s, that group has about three in 20 kids who were developmentally vulnerable,’ Dr Falster said.  
‘But then if you look at the older end of the spectrum, so those kids born to mums in their 40s, it rose up to five in 20 kids who were vulnerable.
‘So it’s really much, much higher in the younger mums.’
Dr Falster said, according to the study, social and economic disadvantage, including the mother’s education and parents’ occupation, explains much, if not all, of the increased risk to kids born to mums in their teens and their 20s.
‘The fact we can see that social and economic disadvantage plays such an important role in the developmental risk of kids born to younger mums points to real opportunities to give kids a better start to life,’ she said. ‘So making sure that kids of disadvantaged mothers of all ages, including those young mums, have access to health and social support from early life –  from the time mum is pregnant and needs to have antenatal support through to making sure that the children get access to early childhood services that are affordable and will help support their developmental needs.
‘Directly practical things that can really help give more children a better start to life and support them to reach their potential as they are hitting their school years.’
However, Dr Falster said relatively few children are born to teenage mothers. Only 4.4% of children in the study were born to mothers aged younger than 20, while one in five children were born to mothers aged 35 years and older.
Bernadette Black, Chief Executive Officer and founder of Brave Foundation Australia, a not-for-profit charity supporting young parents, said expecting and parenting teens often do not have the traditional pathways towards education and support that are available to other parents.
A young mother herself, Ms Black described the Brave Foundation as the charity she looked for and could not find as a 16-year-old mum.
‘When you are an expecting or parenting teen there are often no opportunities to continue with education,’ she told newsGP.
‘Then you might also have a teenager who doesn’t have their [driver’s] licence yet … and they might not actually be on a bus route.
‘It’s actually been shown that perinatal attendance in [teen] pregnancy is decreased … and the reason for that also is because they literally can’t get to those perinatal visits.’
Ms Black said teenaged mothers have high hopes for their dreams, aspirations and careers, but are often unable to realise them due to a lack of support.
Ebony Curtis was just 15 when she fell pregnant to her boyfriend of three months.
The Tasmanian resident was getting ready for school when the then year 9 student realised her pregnancy test had returned positive.
‘I had a pregnancy test that I had taken … because my period hadn’t come. I looked at it and, yeah, there were two lines,’ she told newsGP.
‘I was in my bedroom … I was putting on my school uniform, ready to go to school and my twin sister, who I shared a room with, walked in and I just fell to the floor.’

Ebony Curtis, who fell pregnant at 15, says teenaged mothers need support to be able to have better pathways to education.

Ms Curtis said that while her middle-class background meant she was not socioeconomically disadvantaged, her private school lacked the necessary know-how to support a teen mum.
Currently in the third year of a double degree in arts and law at the University of Tasmania, the now 22-year-old said she went back to high school just six weeks after giving birth.
‘I was the first person to fall pregnant there and they had no idea how to deal with it,’ Ms Curtis said. ‘That’s why I went back to school five days a week, because no one knew what to do. I actually suffered from postnatal depression.’
Ms Curtis said young mothers often dropped out of school because schools do not have a plan tailored to their needs.
‘There definitely needs to be more of a support system in the school especially to be able to get young girls to return back to education,’ she said.

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Inaccurate reporting   9/05/2018 8:31:12 AM

The headline and story is incredibly misleading. The original research in PLOS concludes that 'Increasing maternal age was associated with a lesser risk of developmental vulnerability for children born to mothers aged 15 years to about 30 years', definitely not ' children born to women in their 40s'. The research article also notes that 'In contrast, increasing maternal age beyond 35 years was generally associated with increasing vulnerability, broadly equivalent to the risk for children born to mothers in their early twenties', which makes the title misleading and inaccurate. I certainly hope this 'experienced writer' and 'Senior Journalist' can learn to properly digest and summarise medical literature more accurately in the future.