Oxford University Press
Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science
School of Medical Sciences/Systems and Intervention Research Centre for Health
Background and objectives: Teenage childbearing may have childhood origins and can be viewed as the outcome of a coherent reproductive strategy associated with early environmental conditions. Life-history theory would predict that where futures are uncertain fitness can be maximized through diverting effort from somatic development into reproduction. Even before the childbearing years, future teenage mothers differ from their peers both physically and psychologically, indicating early calibration to key ecological factors. Cohort data have not been deliberately collected to test life-history hypotheses within Western populations. Nonetheless, existing data sets can be used to pursue relevant patterns using socioeconomic variables as indices of relevant ecologies. Methodology: We examined the physical and psychological development of 599 young women from the National Child Development Study who became mothers before age 20, compared to 599 socioeconomically matched controls. Results: Future young mothers were lighter than controls at birth and shorter at age 7. They had earlier menarche and accelerated breast development, earlier cessation of growth and shorter adult stature. Future young mothers had poorer emotional and behavioural adjustment than controls at age 7 and especially 11, and by age 16, idealized younger ages for marriage and parenthood than did the controls. Conclusions and implications: The developmental patterns we observed are consistent with the idea that early childbearing is a component of an accelerated reproductive strategy that is induced by earlylife conditions. We discuss the implications for the kinds of interventions likely to affect the rate of teenage childbearing.