‘What am I going to do?’

She was pregnant, scared and only 16.

At first, Sydney Perkins, now 18, tried to ignore the signs. She was a sophomore at Columbus North High School with no intention of starting a family anytime soon.

But as time went on, Perkins knew her body was trying to tell her something. After about three months, her suspicions were confirmed: She was pregnant and would soon become a teenage mother.

“I was crying. I was terrified,” Perkins said. “I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Despite her uncertainties, Perkins gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Annabelle Skye Baker, on July 4, 2013. Annie was born just a few weeks before the beginning of Perkins’ junior year of high school.

Although there were times when she felt alone in her journey to motherhood, Perkins’ situation is not uncommon in Bartholomew County.

An average of 51 babies were born to teenage mothers per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 in Bartholomew County between 2006 and 2012, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That amounts to about 129 births for each of those seven years.

The birth rate of 51-per-1,000 ranks the county seventh-highest among Indiana’s 92 counties.

Last year, 106 teenagers gave birth in Bartholomew County, according to the Bartholomew County Health Department, which means the number is coming down from the seven-year average.

Between January and September of this year, the department reports 60 babies were born to teen mothers in Bartholomew County. That’s compared with 80 for the first nine months of last year, which is trending to show another annual decrease.

Those numbers represent the teen birth rate, which accounts for pregnancies that end in an actual birth, said Tim Bond, executive director of Pregnancy Care Centers of South Central Indiana.

The teen pregnancy rate, however, tracks all pregnancies, including those that are not carried to term.

“Clarifying those two things can really help in the conversation,” Bond said. “The schools work on reducing the teen pregnancy rate, and we work on encouraging the teen birth rate.”

It can be difficult to track the teen pregnancy rate for a community because some teenage girls who are pregnant choose not to tell anyone about their condition, Bond said.

If a mother loses her baby before anyone else knows she is pregnant, there would never be a record of the pregnancy existing. Those situations often skew the teen pregnancy rates, Bond said.

Perkins said she understands why some teenage mothers are reluctant to tell others about their situations.

Reaction to pregnancy

When word of her pregnancy began to spread at Columbus North, some students were critical, Perkins said. She also received judgmental glances from some adults when she would go to the doctor for her prenatal appointments.Perkins’ closest friends, however, stood by her, and even her teachers reassured her that she had their support.With that support system in tact, Perkins said she felt confident enough to go to school each day, even late into her pregnancy, and face down the stigmas against teenage pregnancies.

“I decided they can think what they want,” she said.

Perkins’ family was much more accepting of the news of her pregnancy than her classmates.

While she reacted to her impending motherhood with fear and self-doubt, Perkins said, her parents were calm and willing to help out wherever they could, enabling her to graduate from Columbus North.

Perkins still lives with her parents, which enables her to go to school at Ivy Tech Community College, where she is a first-year student pursuing an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences. Her mother watches Annie during the day.

Her parents’ support is indispensable, Perkins said, especially because she did not even have a driver’s license until recently.

Annie’s father, Mason Baker, also stood by Perkins’ side as they welcomed their daughter into the world.

Although the couple broke up around Annie’s first birthday, they have maintained a friendly relationship and continue to do things as a family of three for the sake of their daughter.

“It’s important that we get along,” Perkins said.

Access to health care

However, not all teenager mothers have that kind of support, said Connie Whitley, a case manager for Route 21, a Human Services Inc. program funded through United Way of Bartholomew County that helps young parents up to age 21 prepare for adulthood.In fact, Perkins’ situation is actually atypical of most teenage pregnancy cases, Whitley said.Often, pregnant teenagers are left to face the seriousness of their new realities alone. In those situations, teens may not know how or where to receive prenatal care, which can jeopardize both the health of the baby and the mother.

Hypertension and anemia are two of the most common threats to pregnant teenagers who do not receive prenatal care, said Jan O’Neill, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which works with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to compile data on teenage births.

Additionally, some young mothers will not gain enough weight during their pregnancies if they do not see a doctor regularly, O’Neill said.

Each of those three conditions can cause a baby to be born with a low birth weight, which is anything less than 5.5 pounds.

Low-birth-weight babies are at a greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity later in life.

An average of 7.9 percent of babies were born with a low birth weight in Bartholomew County between 2006 and 2012, the foundation reports. That’s below the state average of 8.2 percent.

Although it can be difficult to know how or where to seek medical care, especially without guidance from older friends or family, Perkins said she encourages all pregnant teenagers to find a local pregnancy care clinic that can point them in the right direction.

Other than a struggle with acid reflux disease, Perkins said, her pregnancy was healthy for both herself and Annie.

Teens who receive prenatal care are more likely to carry their pregnancies to term, which increases the overall teen birth rate, O’Neill said.

In fact, a high teen birth rate can sometimes be a sign of a healthy community, because it often means young mothers have greater access to health care. The healthiest counties might have double the teen birth rate over the unhealthiest counties, O’Neill said.

Available resources

Local teen mothers have access to prenatal and postpartum resources through the Bartholomew County Pregnancy Care Center, which could be a contributing factor to the county’s high birth rate, center manager Lisa Pardue said.In addition to the initial pregnancy tests, the center offers ultrasounds and periodic checkups throughout the pregnancy, as well as counseling services and parenting classes, Pardue said.Center staff also provide young mothers with information to help them make the choice between parenting, adoption and abortion.

“Education is power. The more they have, the better choice they can make for themselves,” Pardue said. “And it’s not going to end when they make their decision, so we make sure they know the long-term ramifications of their choice.”

An increasing number of teenage mothers who visit the Pregnancy Care Center are choosing to parent their children themselves, Pardue said.

While those mothers are the majority, there are a few teens who choose abortion and an even smaller group who choose adoption, she said.

“It’s varied. It’s all across the spectrum,” Pardue said. “There’s really hardly any such thing (as a typical teenage mother).”

Although the Bartholomew County teen birth rate is still high, both the birth and pregnancy rate have been falling since 2011.

That year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported an average of 59 teen births per 1,000 girls, and the state department of health reported 137 teenage pregnancies in the county.

“They’re seeking reassurance that they’re going to be OK, that we’ll help them, that they’re not going to go through this alone,” Pardue said. “They’re just scared.”

By the numbers

Teen birth rates in Indiana, ages 15-19, per 1,000, 2006-2012

1. Scott County, 63

2. Fayette County, 61

3. Jennings County, 60

4. Jackson County, 56

5. Marion County, 55

6. Elkhart County, 52

7. Bartholomew County, 51

8. Lawrence County, 50

9. Clinton County, 49

10. Blackford County, 49

Source: CountyHealthRankings.org

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.