Safe Motherhood: Healthy Timing of Births

Pregnant woman and husband

Although this message appears to be mainly for adults, children also need to understand them, for two reasons. First, children are future parents and second, there are ways, as family members, that they can help their mothers and fathers to keep babies safe and healthy before birth and after they are born.

Becoming pregnant before the age of 18, or after the age of 35, increases the health risks for both mother and child.
For health reasons alone, no girl should become pregnant before the age of 18. A woman is not physically ready to begin bearing children until she is about 18 years of age. Babies born to women younger than 18 are more likely to be born too early and to weigh too little at birth. The birth itself is likely to be more difficult. Babies born to mothers who are too young are also much more likely to die in the first year of life. The risks to the mother’s own health are also greater.

At the age of 35, the health risks of pregnancy and childbirth begin to increase again. If a woman is over the age of 35 and has had four or more previous pregnancies, then another pregnancy is a serious risk to her own health and that of her unborn child.

The risk of death for young children is increased by about 50% if the space between births is less than two years.

For the health of both mothers and children, parents should wait until their youngest child is at least two years old before having another baby. If a woman becomes pregnant before she is fully recovered from bearing a previous child, there is a higher chance that her new baby will be born too early and too light in weight. Low-birth-weight babies are less likely to grow well, more likely to fall ill, and four times more likely to die in the first year of life than babies of normal weight.

Having more than four children increases the health risks of pregnancy and childbirth.

After a woman has had four children, further pregnancies bring greater risks to the life and health of both mother and child. Especially if the previous births have not been spaced more than two years apart, a woman’s body can easily become exhausted by repeated pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and looking after small children. Further pregnancies usually mean that her own health begins to suffer.

After four pregnancies, there is an increased risk of serious health problems such as anemia (‘thin blood’) and hemorrhage (heavy loss of blood). The risk of giving birth to babies with disabilities, or with low birth weight, also increases after four pregnancies and after the mother reaches the age of 35.

There are many safe and acceptable ways of avoiding pregnancy. Family planning services can give couples the knowledge and the means to plan when to begin having children, how far apart to have them, and when to stop.

Most health clinics can offer different methods of family planning so that all couples can choose a method which is acceptable, safe, convenient, and effective. Couples should ask advice about the most suitable means of family planning from the nearest trained health worker or family planning clinic.

Family planning is the responsibility of men as well as women. All men should be aware of the health benefits of family planning and of the different methods now available.

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