Teen birth rates appear to have reached historic lows.
A new study from researchers at the government's National Center for Health Statistics shows the U.S. teen birth rate has continued its recent declines to hit a record low of 31.3 births per 1,000 women in 2011.
That's good news, considering teen pregnancy could increase health risks for both mom and baby. Teens who are pregnant are more likely to experience complications like pregnancy-induced hypertension, anemia, preeclampsia and premature birth.
Babies born to teens are up to six times more likely to have a low birth weight than infants born to moms over 20, according to the National Institutes of Health. Pediatrician Dr. Ellen Rome, head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, adds that one of the biggest risks is that teen moms are less likely to engage in proper prenatal care and more likely to have poor nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases or substance abuse issues that can risk the pregnancy. Poor prenatal care, such as by not taking a multivitamin with folic acid, could also increase risk for birth defects like spina bifida, she added.
The new study also found declines in the number of premature births and newborns born low birth-weights. Premature births fell for a fifth straight year from 12.8 percent of all births in 2006 to 11.72 percent of births in 2011. Low birth-weight rates slightly declined from 8.15 percent of births in 2010 to 8.10 in 2011, which Rome, who was not involved in the research, explained corresponds with more teens delaying pregnancy.
Teen pregnancy rates have been declining for years. In April, report showed an all-time low for teen birth rates in 2010 at 34.4 births per every 1,000 women between 15 and 19 years old. That reflected a 44 percent drop in teen birth rates from 1991 to 2010, and there were fewer teenage mothers in 2010 than any year since 1946.
What's behind the falling rates?
Rome thinks the explanation is two-fold, in that teens are waiting to have sex longer and those who do are using more effective birth control, such as an intrauterine device (IUD) in addition to condoms.
released new guidelines last September that encouraged doctors to prescribe hormonal implants or IUDs to teenage girls considering contraception as "first-line" methods over the pill, in part because the pill needs to be taken daily at the same time to be most potent.
Despite the declines, Rome argued there's still more to be done to curb teen pregnancy rates, such as by lifting taboos about having the sex talk with kids. She recommends children, parents and the pediatrician begin having this talk around when the child is 9 to 12 years old. A good time may be when the child is scheduled to receive an HPV vaccine, she added.
"This gives pediatrician and parent a chance to have those conversations," she said, adding, "we can't forget the teen dads in the equation either."
Boys are also recommended to get an HPV vaccine beginning at 11 or 12. Rome said adolescents are more likely to make smarter decisions if they have ongoing conversations with their parents about waiting for sex until a certain time or if they are going to have sex, having a conversation about practicing safe contraception such as by using a second method besides condoms.
"If you have sex, then it becomes a choice, not an oops," she explained.
The report also looked at other trends in U.S. births. The overall birth rate also declined from 2010 to 2011 to 12.7 births per 1,000 total women, the lowest rate ever reported for the United States. The percentage of births to unmarried women also fell slightly from 40.8 percent of all births in 2010 to 40.7 percent in 2011. Life expectancy at birth was determined by the researchers to 78.7 years of age in 2011, which was unchanged from the previous year. Unintentional injuries and homicide remain the first and second leading causes of death for children under 19, accounting for about 47 percent of all fatalities for children and adolescents.
The study was published Feb. 11 in Pediatrics.