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NZ’s Teen Birth Rate: Time To Stop Worrying About It?

A new report examining New Zealand’s teen birth rate has just been released, and says that since 2008 New Zealand's teen birth rate has plummeted by almost two thirds, so is it time to stop worrying about it?

Researcher Lindsay Mitchell tracked trends in teenage maternal inputs and child outcomes in order to answer this question. What she found was that a number of the risks associated with teenage births have actually worsened.

"Teen mothers are increasingly likely to live in the poorest quintile; obesity which increases pregnancy and birth complications is rising; and the dependency rate on welfare benefits appears slightly elevated. The disproportionate perinatal mortality rate - the death of babies between 20 weeks after conception to 27 days after birth - remains tragically and unacceptably high, and possibly rising according to official data."

"The smoking rate for pregnant teens, which increases risk of miscarriage, is much higher than for other teens. There was only a small reduction in mothers under 20 smoking at registration with Lead Maternity Carer between the periods of 2008-2012 and 2013-18 from 36.4 to 34.4 percent. Indicators for drug and alcohol use also suggest higher rates among pregnant or teen parents."

Poor child outcomes associated with teen births include higher rates of hospitalisation, maltreatment, and lower cognitive achievement. There have been improvements in the general child population since 2008 such as fewer maltreatment substantiations; declining hospitalisation for assault, maltreatment and neglect injuries; and higher pre-school attendance (which could indicate greater cognitive achievement). But there are also coincidental worsening outcomes: higher hospitalisation rates for medical reasons and increasing child mental health and behavioural problems. However, in the absence of maternal age-specific data these developments cannot be labelled anything more than coincidental.

On a positive note, Mitchell found a growing proportion of teen mothers enrol in a teen parent unit continuing their education. It remains the case however that most do not.

Compounding all of this, teen mothers and their children are susceptible to ‘falling through the cracks’. Drop-out from the longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand study typically comprised Māori, Pacific or Asian teen mothers living in high deprivation areas with incomplete education.

According to Mitchell, "About those children presenting the greatest concern, we know the least. What we do know is when young females delay first births, their own life opportunities increase. Becoming mothers with risk-taking years behind them, having completed their education and/or acquired work skills, and established economic and relationship stability, makes a world of difference to their own lives and their children’s."

"Based on the findings of this report, a continuing decline in the teenage birth rate should be actively encouraged and welcomed. There is no margin for complacency."

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