Why a Mother’s Age is Important to Newborn Survival

In light of the release of the State of the World’s Mothers Report 2013, Surviving the First Day, it’s important to highlight that in order to help babies survive childbirth and their first day of life, the link between maternal and newborn health cannot be understated. Because a baby’s health and survival is critically linked to the health of the mother, maternal health is a precursor for newborn survival. And a mother’s age is significant.
It’s estimated that about 16 million adolescent girls give birth every year. Most of these births happen in low- and middle-income countries. World Health Organization statistics indicate that one in five girls has given birth by the age of 18, and that figure rises to more than 1 in 3 girls in the poorest regions of the world. Often, once a girl becomes a mother, we classify her as a woman. She is able to give birth before she is fully grown and before she is fully mature, but giving birth does not transform a girl into a woman. And this difference means a lot to her health, and to the health of her baby. Too often maternal health indicators include the term “women of reproductive age, between 15-49 years old” is used. Yet, a 15-year-old girl is not a woman. And when she becomes pregnant, grouping her with women disregards that both she and her baby are at a greater risk for adverse health conditions and death due to her young age. 
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If we act on these greater risks for pregnant girls, we can make sure they have the extra support they need from healthcare providers and community health workers. This will help girls to cope with the physical aspects of motherhood in better health, to understand sources of better health through changed behavior, and to overcome practical problems in access to health services. But if we really want to make sure mothers and babies don’t have these extra risks, we have to work to prevent adolescent motherhood. As The State of the World’s Mothers 2013 highlights, improving education, nutrition and family planning for girls and women are the most effective interventions in preventing high-risk pregnancies and saving mothers’ and babies’ lives.
Keeping girls in school, especially after they reach adolescence, is one of the most effective ways to reduce risks for both mothers and newborns. When girls are able to stay in school and delay marriage and pregnancy, statistics show that they tend to have fewer pregnancies, safer deliveries and feed their children more nutritious food, thus raising healthier children. Improving nutrition for adolescent girls is another way to improve maternal and newborn health outcomes, since undernourished girls can grow up to be stunted and suffer from an anemia deficiency. It is estimated that 55 million adult women in developing countries are stunted as an effect of malnutrition during childhood. Underweight mothers tend to have undernourished babies. Promoting a healthy and balanced diet for girls and women will lead to improved outcomes for mothers and babies. Finally, providing family planning options and information for adolescent girls and women, so that they can decide when to become pregnant and how many children they wish to have, leads to delayed pregnancy, birth spacing that is healthier and leads to better health outcomes for mother and newborn.
Focusing additional resources and care on adolescent girls and their babies as a vulnerable group will help accelerate the decline in both maternal and neonatal mortality. Since Save the Children’s Nike Funded Girl Initiative for Results and Learning began in the May 2011, Save the Children has implemented more than 75 projects in more than 15 countries that directly benefit adolescent girls and work to improve their: safety and wellbeing, access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and will have lasting effects for themselves, their offspring, and their communities.
This article was written by Andrea Burniske, GIRL Project Director at Save the Children, and Elizabeth Romanoff Silva, Consultant to the GIRL Project at Save the Children.

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