Babies born to teenage dads at risk

Posted on February 7, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Health Debates – Health – Babies born to teenage dads at risk
February 7, 2008 at 10:36 AM EST

Babies born from teenage fathers are much more likely to be delivered early, suffer low birth weight and even die than those born to older fathers – regardless of the mother’s age – according to a new study by Canadian researchers.

It is the largest study of its kind and is shedding new light on the impact a man’s age can have on birth risks. The findings could have significant implications for the way doctors monitor potential health problems during pregnancy and delivery.

“I think there is disproportionate attention toward mothers and less toward fathers,” said Shi Wu Wen, senior scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute and one of the study’s authors. “Almost all the outcomes we looked at showed an increased risk in teenage fathers.”

Contrary to common belief, researchers also discovered that men who become fathers at age 40 or older don’t pose an increased risk for problems during birth. The study is published today in Human Reproduction, a leading European fertility journal.

The findings are particularly significant because, unlike in other studies, researchers took into account the mothers’ ages in order to limit their contribution to problems experienced during pregnancy or birth.

In conducting the study, researchers examined data from nearly 24 million births, or nearly all babies born in the United States between 1995 and 2000, obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics. But they only included mothers in their 20s in their analysis, the age group considered least likely to experience birth problems. Researchers also excluded unmarried women, since paternal data was missing from about 40 per cent of those files.

After adjusting for certain risk factors, such as smoking and drinking during pregnancy, as well as the education and race of the parents, researchers found that “teenage fathers have an increased risk of adverse birth outcomes” compared with fathers in their 20s. Meanwhile, fathers 40 and older don’t pose an increased risk for problems during birth, according to the study.

Babies born from teenage fathers were 15 per cent more likely to be delivered early; 13 per cent more likely to have a low birth weight; 22 per cent more likely to die within the first four weeks after birth; 17 per cent more likely to be smaller for their gestational age; and 13 per cent more likely to have a low Apgar score, a standardized test used to quickly evaluate a newborn’s physical condition.

Although researchers don’t yet know the reasons behind the risk associated with teenage fathers, they suspect at least part is social factors.

“[It] may be a lack of support, either financial or emotional, with younger fathers,” said Mark Walker, one of the researchers and a high-risk obstetrician at the Ottawa Hospital.

Those social factors could also explain why fathers who have children later in life, when their careers and finances are better established, don’t seem to be associated with problems during pregnancy or delivery, said Dr. Walker, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa.

The study provides evidence for better surveillance of babies born to teenage fathers to determine what factors contribute to the increased risk.

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