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Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Teenage births

Jonathan Bradshaw

Joseph Rowntree Foundation


SARPN acknowledges the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as a source of this document:
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The purpose of this note is to examine the contribution to ending child poverty that might be made by reducing teenage births.

UNICEF1 found that the under-20 birth rate in the UK was the second highest out of 28 OECD countries, lower only than in the United States; and even in affluent areas, the teenage birth rate in the UK was higher than the average for the Netherlands or France. Chart 1 gives more recent data on the teenage fertility rate and shows that the UK comes fifth from highest out of 31 countries.


There is a host of evidence that teenage births are associated with poor outcomes for the teenage mother and her child, both in the short and long term. This evidence was reviewed in the Social Exclusion Unit report Teenage Pregnancy.2 Teenage pregnancies are more likely to result in low birth weight babies, infant and child mortality, hospital admissions of children, postnatal depression and low rates of breastfeeding. New analysis of the Millennium Cohort (MC) survey finds that teenage mothers were over three times more likely to be poor than mothers in their 30s, the odds of a low birth weight baby was 40 per cent higher for a teenage conception, teenage mothers were 50 per cent more likely to be depressed and 100 per cent less likely to breastfeed.3 We also know that teenage mothers are less likely to complete their education and more likely to be out of employment and to live in poverty.4 The children of teenage mothers are more likely to experience these disadvantages and twice as likely to become teenage parents in their turn.5 The Millennium Cohort found that having had an experience of one’s own parents separating in childhood was associated with double the likelihood of becoming a young mother oneself after controlling for other factors.6 Also the MC found that only 15 per cent of teenage mothers planned their pregnancy and 28 per cent of the teenage mothers were unhappy or very unhappy about the pregnancy nine months after the birth of their child (and of course these data do not include those conceptions that did not end in births).

So there are short term and long term child poverty reduction prizes to be won in reducing teenage births.

Following the Social Exclusion Unit Report this was recognised in the government establishing a Teenage Pregnancy Strategy with the following targets:

  • reduce by 50% the 1998 England under-18 conception rates by 2010, with an intermediate target of a 15% reduction by 2004;
  • achieve a well-established downward trend in the under-16 conception rate by 2010;
  • reduce the inequality in rates between the fifth of wards with the highest under-18 conception rate and the average ward rate by at least 25% by 2010; and
  • increase to 60 per cent the participation of teenage parents in education, training or employment to reduce their risk of long term social exclusion by 2010.
The first and fourth of these statistics are also used to monitor the antipoverty strategy in Opportunity for All.

  1. UNICEF. A League Table of Teenage Births in Rich Nations, Innocenti Report Card 3. Florence: Innocenti Centre, 2001.
  2. Social Exclusion Unit, Teenage Pregnancy, 1999.
  3. Mayhew, E. and Bradshaw, J. (2005) Mothers, babies and the risks of poverty. Poverty, 121, 13-16.
  4. However a recent IFS study using the 1970 birth cohort has found that compared with women who have a miscarriage in teenage years there are no significant differences in the economic outcomes with women who have a teenage birth. The suggestion is that it is not the birth but the childhood experiences that explain the differences. However the authors are quite worried about biases which may be influencing their results. Goodman, A., Kaplan, G. and Walker, I. (2004) Understanding the effects of early motherhood in Britain: The effects on the mothers. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies
  5. Rendall, M. (2003) How important are intergenerational cycles of teenage motherhood in England and Wales? A comparison with France. Population Trends, 111, Spring 2003, pp27-33.
  6. Dex, S. and Joshi, H. (2006) Children of the 21st Century: from birth to nine month. Bristol: Policy Press.

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