INFANTICIDE: Babies Of Teen Mothers At Highest Risk
The babies of teen mothers are more likely than others to be the victims of infanticide, according to a study in today's New England Journal of Medicine. Babies born to mothers under age 17 who already had another child were found to be most at risk, but those born to mothers who had not completed high school or had no prenatal care were also targeted as at-risk (Overpeck et al., NEJM, 10/22 issue). Lead researcher Dr. Mary Overpeck of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said the study found that "[g]irls who had their first baby by the time they were 17 were at about eight times the risk of having a child that was killed," and "girls who had second or later babies before they were 19 were at 10 times the risk of having a baby get killed." While the study did not identify if the mothers themselves killed the babies, National Public Radio's Jon Hamilton reported that the risk factors pointed to babies born to "a group of young women who are not ready to be parents." Overpeck said on NPR, "These are girls who ha[d] started sex by the time they were 13, 14, 15 years old. And they weren't able to protect themselves in a situation that required maturity for both the girl and her partner" (NPR, "All Things Considered," 10/21). A "possible explanation" for the link between teen mothers and infanticide, researchers said, is that they are "trying to hide the pregnancy and birth." In support of that theory, the study found that "95% of infants killed during the first day of life were not born in a hospital." The study also found that half of infanticides occur before the infant is four months old. Researchers looked at "birth and death certificates for all births in the U.S. between 1983 and 1991," identifying 2,776 homicides that occurred within the infants' first year of life. (Click here to read an abstract of the article.)
In their discussion, the researchers write: "Since we found that infants are most likely to be killed during the first few months of life, the identification of risk factors and interventions must take place during pregnancy, at the time of delivery and in the immediate postpartum period." Citing a National Research Council study, the researchers recommended that nurses make home visits to at-risk mothers during pregnancy and throughout the following two years (NEJM, 10/22 issue). In an accompanying NEJM editorial, Dr. Lawrence Wissow of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health recommends caring for teen mothers' "emotional health" during prenatal and postnatal care. Offering an explanation for the study's findings, he says, "As a group, adolescent mothers may be less knowledgeable about child development, more restrictive and punitive, and less empathetic toward their children than older mothers." Wissow maintains that greater "efforts are needed to identify adolescents who have hidden their pregnancies, in order to provide them with prenatal care." To accomplish this, Wissow contends, pediatricians need to move beyond asking questions only about "menstrual or sexual history," to posing "[t]actful questions," administering "careful physical examination[s]" and perceiving the need for pregnancy tests (NEJM, 10/22 issue). Click here to read Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report coverage of another study linking infanticide to teen pregnancy. The Report is available online at www.kff.org.