The idea of a 10 year old girl becoming pregnant is an unthinkable one. Unfortunately, many disturbing cases of girls falling pregnant at this tender age (and even younger) have come to light over the years, forcing us to come to the realization that more needs to be done to understand how these atrocities can happen and how society can prevent them.
So how likely is it that a 10 year old girl can become pregnant? Once a girl has started puberty (typically between age 10 and 11) and has begun ovulating, pregnancy is very possible. The difference between a fully grown and sexually active woman becoming pregnant and a 10 year old girl, of course, is that a 10 year old cannot consent to sexual intercourse and her pregnancy will always be a result of rape and sexual abuse. A pregnant 10 year old is still a child and the mental and physical consequences can be devastating - even life-threatening.
Weighing in on the story of the pregnant 10 year-old Paraguayan girl who was denied abortion in 2015, America’s deputy director at Amnesty International Guadalupe Marengo stated that forcing a young girl to have an unwanted pregnancy is “tantamount to torture”. To get a better understanding of these horrific circumstances, we look at how young pregnancy is possible and the various health risks to young mothers.
Pregnancy Before Maturity
Lewis Wall, a gynecology professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, makes it crystal clear that “No 10 year old anywhere in the world should be having a baby”. Despite religious views – or strict abortion laws in the case of the pregnant Paraguayan girl – the scientific facts on child pregnancy are clear: the body of a 10 year old girl was not designed to safely deliver a baby, and just because she can become pregnant, it does not mean that girl should be forced to carry her pregnancy to term.
Early Puberty and Young Pregnancy
In normal puberty, the average age a girl begins menstruating is around 12 to 13 years. Around a year after a girl has begun menstruating for the first time, she may begin ovulating, but the chances of ovulation are rare this early into a girl’s menstruation (in only 2 of every 10 cycles). As girls mature and reach the end of puberty, however, ovulation occurs much more regularly (every 9 in 10 cycles).
This is what menstruation looks like in normal rates of puberty, but in extreme cases of early onset puberty, menstruation can begin at an alarmingly early age, and this is known as ‘precocious puberty’. Girls who experience precocious puberty begin to develop before the age of 8, giving them their first period at least 4 years ahead of most girls, and giving them the potential to get pregnant at 9 years old or younger.
Can a Girl Become Pregnant Before Her First Period?
Yes. As unlikely as it may seem, a girl is entirely capable of becoming pregnant even before she has had her first period. This is down to whether or not a girl’s hormones are already active as part of her puberty, and if hormones activate early, then the building of the uterine wall can begin where a fertilized egg may (theoretically) attach itself and begin developing into a baby.
In demonstrating just how early it is possible for a girl to develop, a particularly rare and disturbing case of precocious puberty – and one that still has medical professionals stunned to this day – is that of the Peruvian girl Lina Medina, who in 1939 gave birth at the age of just 5 years old. Medina’s parents had feared she had a tumor in her stomach, but to everyone’s horror, doctors discovered Lina to in fact be 7 months pregnant.
Medina suffered from a rare case of precocious puberty unlike anything seen by medical experts before or since. 1 in every 5-10,000 children develop precocious puberty and in most cases, children with the condition will reach sexual maturity before the age of 8. The reason behind the extremely early rate of development in Lina Medina’s case is still largely unclear, but medical reports suggest she had begun developing between the ages of 8 months and 3 years old and this is believed to be down to a rare genetic disorder.
What are the Symptoms of Precocious Puberty?
The warning signs of precocious puberty for Lina Medina were tragically misunderstood and spotted too late. But with greater awareness of the condition and far greater medical advancements today, precocious puberty can be more easily identified.
In girls of 8 years or younger, the following signs may point to an onset of precocious puberty:
- Start of menstruation
- Underarm/pubic hair growth
- Breast development
- “Mature” body odor
- Rapid growth in height (a “growth spurt”)
If your child exhibits one or more of these symptoms, a doctor may then run blood and urine tests to look for high levels of sex hormones for further confirmation of the condition. Doctors may also recommend running X- rays to observe your child’s bone growth rate and an MRI scan to rule out the possibility that the symptoms are linked to tumors in the hormonal glands or ovaries.
Can My Child be Treated for Precocious Puberty?
Once a medical professional has made a diagnosis of the condition, your child may be referred to a pediatric endocrinologist (a doctor with special training in matters of hormonal abnormalities in children). From this point, your child’s endocrinologist can refer your child for hormone therapy, as the aim is to slow down (or even stop) your child’s rapid sexual development. Parents can refer here for further info about treating precocious puberty, and should consult their local physician for further assistance.
Health Risks for a Pregnant 10 Year Old
It should go without saying that children’s bodies were not designed to deliver a baby. As well as the physical dangers childbirth would pose to a 10 year old’s body, the mental and emotional scars of giving birth are unfathomable and last a lifetime.
- Under-developed pelvic floor - Even in cases of early puberty with girls who begin their menstrual cycle at age 9 or 10, the pelvis does not develop any faster than normal. So simply because a girl starts puberty early, it does not mean she will be in a less vulnerable physical state. As a result of a 10 year old mother is not always able to push a baby through the birth canal – often leading to the mother and baby dying in labor.
- Insufficient nutrients – A child of 10 years old is still growing and in need of calcium and similar nutrients to develop healthily. But during pregnancy, the fetus will take some of these much-needed nutrients for its own growth and this can result in chronic pain in the mother’s hips and waist long after pregnancy. Child pregnancy robs a girl’s growing body of vital nutrients and vitamins and can have long-lasting effects in her adult life.
- Contracting STD’s – in the case of a minor falling pregnant, there’s a strong chance that their abuser will have passed on a sexually transmitted disease or infection. If left untreated, the complications of having an STD can include future infertility, heart disease and a number of cancers.
- Developing ‘Fistulas’ - Even when girls aged 10 and younger survive childbirth, they often have a horrific physical injury to contend with known as ‘fistulas’. Fistulas develop when the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and creates tears in the mother’s tissue between the vaginal walls and the rectum or bladder. The horrifying result is that once the tissue dies, a hole is formed, allowing feces and urine to leak through the hole and out of the vagina.
Mental health risks
- Depression – The above-mentioned story of the pregnant 10 year old Paraguayan girl detailed the deep psychological scars she suffered. ‘Mainumby’ as she became known began self-harming and taking antidepressants regularly after the birth of her child. Mainumby’s mother Rosana, reveals that she even expressed “wanting to commit suicide.”
- Lack of sleep – all mothers are faced with less sleep once a baby comes along, but for a growing girl aged just 10 years old, losing sleep can especially endanger her health and ability to function normally. Kids need more sleep than adults (around 9-10 hours of sleep).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder – the trauma of not only experiencing pregnancy at such a young age, but potentially childbirth or abortion can have an unsurprisingly damaging effect on young mothers. In fact, studies show that young and adolescent mothers suffer from postpartum stress and depression at twice the rate of women aged 25 and older.
What Should I Do if My Young Daughter is Pregnant?
Hearing the news that your teenage daughter is pregnant is hard enough for parents to come to terms with, but if you discover that your daughter is in the same situation at 12 years old or younger, then this invites two very serious issues that need to be addressed: Firstly, was the sex consensual? And secondly, what your daughter’s rights are to an abortion.
1. The issue of consent
Unprotected intercourse between teens is, of course, irresponsible, but with teenage girls aged 16 and over, it may be more likely that the sex was consensual and premeditated. In the case of a much younger girl, sex can never be consensual (even if your daughter tells you otherwise), because she counts as a minor and a child is not yet sexually mature to consent to any kind of sexual activity. And since they cannot consent, this may be classed as rape or sexual assault.
The age of sexual consent varies from state to state, but you can find out more about the state laws here as well as how you can report your child’s sexual abuser to the authorities (in the case of rape and sexual assault).
2. Dealing with the pregnancy
Before discussing any options with your daughter, be sure to take her for her first prenatal check-up and ultrasound so that you can both have the pregnancy medically confirmed. Once you know how far along your daughter is in her pregnancy, you should allow your daughter to ask the doctor her own questions about what she wants to do.
In most states, parental consent is required if your child chooses to have an abortion or go with adoption, but you should know that parents do not have the right to force either of these options on to their child. In cases of especially young mothers (aged 12 or younger), there is a higher risk of complications in childbirth, possibly even death.
When there is an obvious risk to the mother’s health – both mentally and physically – it can be in your child’s best interests to consider an abortion. Furthermore, if your child’s pregnancy is the result of rape, this is a crime and the option of abortion should always be permitted in this case. All things considered, the safety of your daughter should come first and always be your priority when dealing with her pregnancy.
How to Prevent Young/Teen Pregnancy
Your child’s school may do their part to provide students with sex education, but as the parent of a teen or young child, it’s important that you also make the effort to give them the information and advice they need as early as possible.
If you’re unsure about how to approach the subject of sex and pregnancy with your child, try some of the following points, as outlined by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:
- What are your own values and attitudes? - Is it your belief teens should abstain from sex until marriage or until aged 18? Were you sexually active as a teen? When did you begin using contraception? If you ask yourself these questions, it will make it easier to talk these through with your teen or young child.
- What does your child already understand about sex? - Your child may have a lot or very little knowledge about sex and pregnancy, so asking them what they understand can be a good starting point for further discussion. Sit back and allow them to ask their own questions and let them know that they will not be judged for being curious and honest.
- Talk to them as early as you feel comfortable to – once your daughter begins puberty (which can be as early as 9), this can be a good time to discuss the changes in their body and how these changes relate to sex and pregnancy. Gynecologist DaCarla M. Albright recommends the sooner ‘the talk’ the better: “It’s up to the parents to guide the conversation before the child gets misinformation from peers or the internet.”
- Stress the importance of protection and responsibility – as well as teaching your child that sex is a normal and natural activity in the right circumstances, don’t be afraid to lay out the consequences of unprotected sex and how they should take responsibility when they are ready. Let them know about contraception options and the risk of STD’s.
- Take a firm stance on their dating habits – if your daughter is at an age when she has started to notice boys, try to discourage her from dating too early. Encourage group activities instead and reiterate that she should make the most of her friendships and childhood fun. Let her know that she should never feel pressured to do something she doesn’t feel ready for and that nobody can decide this but herself.
- Help them understand their future potential – promiscuous sex and becoming a teen mom may seem glamorous and grown up in the eyes of some young girls, but they should know what they would be giving up. Make your child aware that being a young parent can stand in the way of their goals and dreams for the future. Chat about what they want to accomplish and what they’ll need to succeed. If they see how limiting the life of a teen mom can be, they will want to take more responsibility for their actions.