What Pregnancy and Childbirth Do to the Bodies of Young Girls


Babies born to girls are more often premature and have low birth weight, said Dr. Willibald Zeck, the maternal and newborn health coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund, who frequently delivered babies for young mothers while working as a gynecologist in Tanzania and later oversaw maternal health programs in Nepal and the Philippines.

While a pregnant 10-year-old in Ohio might have access to prenatal care and a cesarean section that would blunt the effects of obstructed labor, the experience of pregnancy in a young girl is the same in India as it is in the United States, Dr. Dyalchand said. “The girls would go through more or less exactly the same kind of complication: The only difference is because of access to better health care they may not have the same kind of terrible outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that the girl’s body and her life doesn’t get scarred.”

Dr. Shershah Syed, a gynecologist and expert on maternal mortality in Pakistan, regularly provides care to pregnant girls as young as 11. He said good prenatal care can avert the development of a hole between the wall of the bladder or rectum and the vagina — called a fistula — which causes leaked urine or feces that is not only painful (the leaked urine causes burning sores) but also a source of enormous shame and humiliation.

But even good prenatal care cannot prevent the hypertension or urinary tract infections that are common in very young mothers, he said.

“In normal physiology a 10-year-old child is not supposed to be pregnant. The point is, she’s a child and the child cannot deliver a child, she’s not ready,” Dr. Syed said, adding: “And the mental torture she will go through, that is not measurable.”

In the cases he has seen, early pregnancy arrests the very young mother’s physical growth, and also often her mental development because many girls leave school and lose normal social interaction with peers, he said. But while an anemic mother struggles to carry the pregnancy, fetuses appropriate nutrients and continue to grow, until they have well surpassed what a young mother’s pelvis can deliver.