Sixteen-year-old Maame Ama (not her real name) can hardly walk upright she’s struggling to walk through the corridors of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit( NICU) of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital.
Her baby, born at 31 weeks, has been on admission for four days and Ama, who is recovering from an emergency Caesarean section, is at the unit to breastfeed her.
From how she walks, one can easily tell she is still in pain but she has little support; her grandmother who she lives with is too feeble to attend to the baby throughout the day and can only pass by in the evening to check on them (mother and baby).
The 22-year-old gentleman who impregnated her absconded and his family was not ready to take responsibility of her bills or assist her take care of the baby at the NICU.
Ama is among four teenage mothers I have met and interacted with at the NICU since December 2021 and in three out of the four cases, the men who impregnated them have left them to their fate.
The NICU, specialising in the care of sick or premature newborn infants, is a difficult place for even women who have the support of their spouses and families. So, you can imagine the ordeal of teenage mothers who find themselves there.
Pregnant teenagers go through many psychological and social problems throughout their pregnancy journeys but the trauma some of them go through when their babies are admitted at the NICU is unrivalled.
From recovering from the pains of childbirth either through Caesarean or vaginal, the shock of seeing their babies lying helplessly among other sick babies, running around for medications and laboratory tests to lack of funds to support themselves and the treatment process of their babies, the NICU can be a “Scary jungle” for teenage mothers.
Another challenge is their inability to understand their infant's diagnosis, treatment and severity of illness at the intensive care unit.
While most of them do not understand the technical language used by some health experts, others are reluctant or shy to ask for such details.
For instance, one of the mothers, a 16-year-old who resides at Chorkor in the Greater Accra Region and was delivered of a set of twin girls through an emergency Caesarean section last year, had no idea why her babies arrived “tiny” or what the “blue light” (Phototherapy a special light treatment given to newborns who have jaundice) on them was meant for or why she had to carry them on her chest, skin-to-skin (Kangaroo mother care) just before they were discharged.
Another teenager, whose baby was diagnosed with birth asphyxia, a condition in which a baby does not receive enough oxygen before, during, or directly after birth said she had been told she could not feed her baby because he (baby) was on oxygen.
That was it, she did not have any idea about the treatment process or severity of her baby’s condition.
Why teenagers end up in NICU
Dr Benedict Affare, an obstetrician-gynecologist, explains that certain factors during pregnancy might cause teenage mothers to deliver prematurely or deliver children who need critical care soon after birth.
He said poor nutrition and absence of folic acid and other supplements during pregnancy was one of the leading causes.
"When most of these teenagers get pregnant, they try to hide it from their parents or guardians for a long period till it starts showing.
" Some also try to get rid of the pregnancy and it is only when their attempts fail that they decide to keep the pregnancy”, he explained.
He added that teenagers were at a high risk of pregnancy-related high blood pressure and complications known as pre-eclampsia which is a major cause of preterm birth (babies born too early, or before 37 weeks of pregnancy)
Pregnant teenagers, he added, were also at risk of becoming anaemic due to the high demand of nutrients such as iron. Lack of iron could cause hemoglobin levels and red blood cell production to go down, leading to iron deficiency anaemia.
Dr Affare added that most teen mothers do not attend antenatal clinics out of the fear of being mocked by health professionals.
“Most of these conditions can be prevented when they are given the right care during pregnancy. Some get infections which are not treated and others severe forms of malaria. These conditions may result in having a distressed baby or a baby with low birth who may require care at the intensive care unit. Some of the conditions are easily managed but others result in life-long complications”.
Dr Affare said stigmatising teenage mothers even in hospitals prevented them from opening up or actively attending antenatal clinics.
“Teenage pregnancy is a menace in our communities and not an ideal situation, but once the teenager gets pregnant, she must be well catered for and provided the needed support throughout the pregnancy. Teenage mothers are likely to be depressed due to the constant emotional abuse and lack of support”.