'Being a teenage mother is so lonely'

By Katie Alston
Victoria Derbyshire programme

media captionShannon says having Harvey, two, has given her life direction

Teenage pregnancy rates in the UK have halved in the past eight years, but are still among the highest in Europe. New government guidelines are being released to help councils reduce the numbers further.

Shannon was 14 and her boyfriend Ethan 17 when she became pregnant with their son, Harvey, who is now two.

"Being a parent is one of the loneliest places I've been. You lose a lot of your friends, they don't want to focus on this little baby," she says.

"You don't want people to see that you're struggling and get the impression that you're a bad mum because you're struggling. It's one of those things you keep in."

She has had negative experiences due to her age, including a nurse who dismissed her when she had stomach pains a few weeks before her due date.

"I remember her saying to me, 'Oh you wouldn't know what labour feels like, you're too young.'"

She was sent home but returned on the advice of a midwife three days later.

"I had a scan and it turned out that I was right all along, my waters had broken, I didn't know that they had. He had been in my stomach for three days without any water."

Contraceptive access

The rate of teenage pregnancy is at the lowest level since records began in the 1960s.

A total of 5,483 of the 632,048 deliveries in England in 2015-16 were to teenage mothers.

image captionShannon says having Harvey has given her life direction

Improved access to the right contraceptives, better sex education, more open attitudes to talking about sex, plus teenagers socialising more online are some of the reasons cited for the fall.

But there has been no government guidance on preventing teen pregnancy since 2010, so councils across England asked for a definitive set of guidelines on how to continue the downward trend.

These new guidelines from Public Health England outline what authorities should be doing, with 10 key factors and a checklist so councils can evaluate their current local situation, identifying gaps and actions.

They include better education, training for health professionals, making sure teenagers have access to contraceptives and ways of supporting vulnerable teens who are more likely to have children at a young age.

'Not just cuddles'

Alison Hadley, director of the University of Bedfordshire's Teenage Pregnancy Knowledge Exchange, helped create the guidelines, and says the aim is to ensure councils make the best use of assets in their areas, as less money is available.

"You would start with improving the sex and relationships education in schools, in primary schools and secondary schools so that all children in the area get really good knowledge and confidence and know about healthy relationships, consent, and where to ask about contraception when they get into a sexual relationship," she explains.

Shannon agrees. "It needs to be spoken about more, because people really have the assumption that when you have a baby it's a newborn, it's all cuddles, and it's really not as easy as that. Also talk about contraception, normalise it more."

The latest official figures show the UK still has some of the highest proportion of births to teenage mothers in Europe, almost five times higher than those in Switzerland and Italy.

There are currently no national targets on teenage pregnancy rates and there are concerns that cuts in public health spending could lead to the number of young parents rising.

Ms Hadley said other countries did not have the "inhibiting stigma" which stopped people from asking for advice earlier.

"They have a much more open and unembarrassed approach to sex and relationships education. Many of those countries expect that young people will start having sex and relationships and it's the country's and the parents' duty to equip them with the information to look after themselves," she says.

Despite the difficulties, Shannon enjoys being a mum.

"Before I had Harvey, I didn't know where my life was going, now I have so much of a purpose, I feel like he has helped me a lot, to know where I want to go, where I want to be and what I want out of life."

Watch the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.

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