A class for teenage moms taught by a teenage mom: 'I did it, and you can do it'

Teenage moms, beset with low graduation rates and paltry earnings, tend to give birth to babies with troubles of their own. Teenage moms, officials say, do not understand the consequences of lifestyle decisions on their newborns. Enter Kathy Newport, educator. 

Kasiyah Buckner waits to be loaded into the car by her mother Courtney Smith, an 18-year-old senior in high school at the time the photo was taken, outside of St. Paul Lutheran in St. Joseph, Mo., in May. Teenage moms often need lifestyle coaching or their babies can be born with complications.

Low graduation rates and meager earnings plague the population of teen moms, a variety of research has found. But it's not just the young mothers whose lives are changed by pregnancy.

Their babies often suffer, too.

A fact sheet prepared by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy indicates children born to teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely and at a low birth weight. A low weight at birth raises the odds of a variety of medical issues ranging from sensory and mental impairments to infant death.

Many of those issues stem at least in part from behaviors of the mother before childbirth. The Purdue Extension indicates that many teens don't understand the consequences that behaviors like poor eating habits, smoking and marijuana or drug use can have on their unborn children.

Kathy Newport, instructor for 17 years of the Cass County Purdue Extension's "Have a Healthy Baby" program, said she's seen fewer teens coming through her class in recent years, but more of those who do take the class have been younger, in their freshman or sophomore year of high school.

At that age, she said, many don't realize that something as simple as an unbalanced diet can adversely affect a developing baby. Substance abuse takes a harder toll.

"My goal is to come into the classroom and tell the girls, if you are doing drugs and alcohol, stop now," she told the Pharos-Tribune.

The "Healthy Baby" program Newport teaches spans six lessons developed by Purdue University and is funded locally this year by a mini-grant from Partners for a Drug-Free Cass County. It's designed to help pregnant teens deal with daily nutritional choices and the relationship of lifestyle choices to the health of a baby.

Newport stretches the lessons over six to seven weeks, sometimes concluding a program with a small baby shower providing the class participants with gifts such as blankets, pacifiers and onesies donated — sometimes handmade — by women in Cass County.

Two of the three main objectives of "Healthy Baby" is to get mothers-to-be to deliver babies with a healthy body weight and help those babies live through the critical first four weeks, according to program information.

The third goal is to reduce the number of days an infant is hospitalized, in part to alleviate the cost to individuals and taxpayers.

And the program has worked, said Newport. Most girls want to keep the babies they're to give birth to and are anxious to care for their babies correctly, often willing to break their bad habits for their sake.

All the young mothers who have taken the class in Cass County have been of normal birth weight, according to a fact sheet about the local program.

One of the six lessons covers the weight gain a pregnant woman can expect. That's important, Newport said, since many girls still try to avoid gaining any weight, unaware that no weight gain is unhealthy for a mother-to-be.

"They are going to gain weight and that's OK," Newport said she tells her students.

Two of the other lessons address how to eat healthy meals, and a third teaches teen mothers-to-be about various methods of feeding their baby.

Many teenagers eat out much of the time, Newport said, so she teaches them what restaurant food choices are better as well as how to prepare homemade meals instead of eating out.

There's one more element she adds, and it's also the reason she's continued teaching the class after officially retiring from the Purdue Extension about five years ago — Newport was a teenage mother, too.

Newport was still in high school when she gave birth to her first child, she said, and had to finish high school via correspondence courses. While caring for the baby, she attempted to start college at a school near her husband's, she said, but didn't get far.

"I was a teen mom, so I do have some idea of the things they're experiencing," Newport said. She does her best to encourage the girls she teaches to finish high school and attend classes at Ivy Tech, like she did after she'd raised her three children.

Newport now has a bachelor's degree in general studies, which she finished in 1992.

"Most of them will say to me they can identify," Newport said — "They know I'm not there to criticize, I'm not there to put them down."

Instead, she tells them, she's there to help. In addition to the nutrition and lifestyle education she provides, Newport has outlined the social services that some teen mothers become eligible for, such as WIC, Medicaid insurance, an early-childhood day care program through Area Five Agency and some food banks for girls from low-income families.

Newport works in tandem with school officials to try to get teen mothers to graduation, she said. And after the girls finish her class, Newport keeps in touch with some and asks how others are doing when she chances to meet them elsewhere. She'll read through the list of graduates published each year to find the names she recognizes from her classes, too.

"I feel like sometimes they need this person on the outside that says, you can do it," Newport said. "I did it, and you can do it."

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