Although an 11-year-old Belgian girl had the ability to give birth last year at the tender age of 10, she is now at risk for more health problems and difficulty during pregnancy later in life, according to an obstetrician.
Females have a higher risk of pregnancy complications and may develop long-term health problems if they give birth too young, said Dr. Joanne Stone, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Stone said the case of the young girl in Charleroi, Belgium, who conceived a child with a 13-year-old father is concerning for a number of reasons.
“The incidence of certain pregnancy complications including preterm delivery, preeclampsia and cesarean section is higher in very young women,” she said. “This clearly stresses the need for communication with parents, other adults or caregivers, teachers, doctors. A 10-year-old girl having intercourse is certainly not the norm, but what was her availability for birth control? Was this consensual?"
There are also some emotional and lifestyle problems that young girls, particularly teens, face when giving birth too young, according to The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington. Only one-third of teen mothers are likely to complete high school and approximately 80 percent are more likely to end up on welfare.
Recent data also show that children of teenage mothers have lower birth weights and are at higher risk of abuse or neglect and performing poorly in school. For example, the sons of teen mothers are 13 percent more likely to end up in prison, and the daughters are 22 percent more likely to have children at early age.
Another factor in younger childbirth is the average age of menstruation, which has been declining worldwide, making younger girls ready for childbearing at an earlier age.
Girls are starting to menstruate early and enter into puberty as early as 12.5 years old in the U.S., according to a recent study released by the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study found that the average age of first menstruation declined from 13.3 years in girls born before 1920 to 12.4 years in those born in the early 1980s.
The onset of puberty can vary from region to region, depending on ethnicity, environment, society and weight. Another study, published by The Breast Cancer Fund, found that the age when puberty begins is also dropping significantly, particularly for African-American girls.
In "The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls: What We Know, What We Need to Know," the report also found that girls today develop breasts two years earlier than girls 40 years ago. The average age of developing breasts is 10 years old for white girls and 9 years old for black girls. At the age of 10, the chances that African-American girls will begin menstruating triples compared to Caucasian girls.
Cultural factors and traditions of early marriage and birth also play a role in young pregnancies. In some regions, teenage pregnancy is often seen as a blessing, a proof of a woman’s fertility. A girl’s first menstruation is celebrated in India for girls as a proof of fertility.
However, birth control is being given to girls as young as 10 in Belgium, according to the medical weekly, De Huisarts.
De Huisarts reported that 57 Belgian 10-year-olds, particularly ethnic girls, had been prescribed a birth control pill in 2006 to treat irregular menstruation. Others were given the medication for birth control purposes.
Sexual intercourse that is not consensual is another cause of young pregnancy. Last year, a 9-year-old girl was impregnated in Brazil in a case that is believed to be rape.
"I don't really see there being long term effects or complications later in life," said Stone. "There are risks during labor and in pregancy. There is also just the natural emotional component of wondering why a 10-year-old would be interested in having sex, how could she be capable or raising a child, and the sadness about the loss of her youth and innocence."