The intergenerational effects of teenage pregnancy on child development

Children born to teen mothers generally perform worse on school readiness assessments than children born to adult mothers. What isn’t known is whether this relationship extends to the grandchildren of these teen mothers.

Research Summary

  • Children born to teenage mothers were more likely to be developmentally vulnerable than children born to mothers older than 20. This risk increased if the child also had a grandmother who had her first child when she was a teenager.
  • This increased risk of vulnerability for children whose grandmothers were teen mothers persisted even if the child’s own mother was not a teenager when they gave birth.

What is the research about?

Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to have poorer educational outcomes. For example, children of teenage mothers average 1.6 fewer years of education.

Although the rate of teenage pregnancy is declining overall, it is particularly high among families with a history of teenage pregnancy. In other words, teenage mothers are more likely to have children who grow up to be teenage mothers.

This study aimed to see the effect of teenage motherhood on children’s development across generations.

What did the researchers do?

By using the Manitoba Population Research Data Repository, researchers from the University of Manitoba were able to link Early Development Instrument data with hospital discharge data and Canadian census information.

Additionally, for both the child and the mother, the researchers accounted for:

  • birth year
  • location (urban, rural)
  • neighbourhood income
  • sex
  • birth order
  • health at birth (whether the child was preterm or had low birth weight)
  • mental and physical health before age five
  • parental receipt of income assistance before age 5

What did the researchers find?

Among children of teenage mothers, 43.1% were developmentally vulnerable compared to only 26.4% of children of non-teenage mothers. Even after taking all the covariates into account, children of teenage mothers were still almost 20% more likely of being developmentally vulnerable overall and across physical, social, and cognitive domains.

Among children whose grandmothers had been teenage mothers, 36% were developmentally vulnerable compared to 31% of children whose grandmothers were not teenage mothers. After taking all the covariates into account, these children too were 20% more likely to be developmentally vulnerable across all domains.

Overall, if a woman had her first child as a teen, her grandchildren were more likely to be developmentally vulnerable. This relationship between a woman and her grandchildren’s development persisted even when the child’s own mother was not a teen mother.

What does this research mean?

Children and grandchildren of teenage mothers were identified to be at a particular disadvantage as they enter school. The authors suggested two ways to better support these families.

First, the authors support supplementary nutrition programs to teenage mothers and their children, starting in pregnancy. The reasoning is that poverty is a major factor in child development, and one of the outcomes of poverty is food insecurity. Helping boost children’s nutritional intake would help provide the fuel for healthy development.

Second, lower levels of school completion among adolescent mothers also contribute to poverty. Teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school and are less likely to return after dropping out. Better access to affordable childcare and other parental supports would help mothers continue attending school.