Visiting nurses help pregnant teenagers

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MINNEAPOLIS — At 17, Camia Carruthers is expecting her first child soon. She’s not going it alone. She has the support of her parents, her boyfriend and Jeanne Kumlin, a nurse who makes weekly house calls.

For years, the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency has been sending nurses like Kumlin to check on pregnant teenagers and offer nutritional advice, parenting tips and even free cribs and clothing.

Now, a new study shows those visits have paid off. The study, conducted by Wilder Research and released last week, found that teenagers in the visiting nurse program were more likely to carry their babies to term, and give birth to healthy babies, than other pregnant teens in the Twin Cities.

“We would expect to see good things,” said Mary Ann Blade, CEO of the agency. But this study, funded by the City of Minneapolis, confirmed that the service “really affects outcomes,” she said.

“They’re reaching the population that really could use the help,” said Richard Chase, a social scientist at Wilder who conducted the study. Many of those teenagers, he said, live in unstable homes, or have never learned to bond with their babies properly. “They’re doing a good job of reaching that diverse population, and they’re definitely a vulnerable group.”

From 2008 to 2009, the visiting nurses paid house calls to 526 pregnant teenagers or teenage moms, most referred by social service agencies, schools or clinics.

The study found that 95 percent of those in the program had babies with a healthy birth weight, compared to 90 percent of other teenagers. Similarly, 95 percent carried their babies to full term, compared to 89 percent of those not involved in the program. Both are considered key measures of newborn health.

The results also suggest that the teens might be more likely to stay in school, increasing their chances to become self-sufficient as adults.

It’s well known, Blade said, that babies born to teenage mothers often face a gantlet of problems, from poverty to poor nutrition, that can hinder their chances of developing normally. About ten years ago, the MVNA decided to launch a special program to prevent those problems. It now spends about $3 million a year — mostly city and county funds, plus private donations — to cover the visits.

In January, Kumlin started visiting Camia Carruthers at her home in North Minneapolis. The girl, a sophomore at Henry Senior High, said she’s learned many tips from those visits. For example, she said, “that the baby not sleep on his stomach.” And “not putting the bottle in the microwave.”

Kumlin said Camia’s doctor was worried that the teenager wasn’t eating enough early in her pregnancy. So Kumlin made a point to discuss healthy eating, encouraging her to eat vegetables and not skip meals.

“So how have you been feeling since I saw you the last time?” Kumlin asked during a visit Wednesday. “Good,” the girl replied with a shy smile. “Any contractions?” Kumlin asked. “No.”

With Camia’s due date just a week away, Kumlin wanted to make sure she was prepared. “Any questions?” she asked. “We talked about getting ready to go to the hospital and what to do at school if your water breaks.” No, Camia smiled. The baby’s father, 17-year-old Ryan Kendrick, sat across the table, joining in the discussion.

After a quick lesson in newborn sleep habits, feeding and other tips, Kumlin said she’d be back after the baby is born. How do they feel about the impending birth? “Excited,” said Ryan with a smile. “Happy,” said Camia.

Chase said the results are preliminary but promising. “If MVNA is effective and successful in this home visiting, you’re going to have a two-generation benefit,” he said. “You’re helping that next generation by helping these teens be more effective parents.”