Electronic baby simulators given to schoolgirls as part of a sex education program may make teenage girls more, not less, likely to become pregnant, a new Australian study has found.
The research, published today in The Lancet, shows 8% of the girls in the baby simulator program had at least one baby by the age of 20, compared to 4% of girls not involved in the program.
The study tracked 3,000 Western Australian schoolgirls aged between 13 and 15 years. The 57 schools involved were randomly allocated either to take part in the baby simulator program or to receive the standard health education curriculum.
The girls' medical records were analysed over a six-year period.
The program aims to deter teenagers from becoming pregnant. Participants care for the electronic baby simulator over a weekend and respond to the infant’s demands such as feeding, burping, nursing and changing. This may keep them up at night or interrupt social activities.
The program included educational sessions on the financial costs of having a baby and sexual health. Participants completed a workbook and watched a video documentary of teenage mothers talking about their experiences.
Participants who had exposure to the program were less likely to terminate a pregnancy. Around 17% of girls in the program became pregnant. Of those, 53.8% had a termination. In contrast, 11% of girls in the control group became pregnant and 60.1% of them opted for an abortion.
The infant simulator program is used in Australia and around the world because it’s thought to reduce teen pregnancies, said lead author and epidemiologist Sally Brinkman from Telethon Kids Institute.
But “even the most well-intentioned programs can have unexpected consequences”, she said.
“The risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention.”
An explanation for this could be that the girls were embraced with family support and positive attention, Dr Brinkman said, and may have felt a false sense of confidence in their simulated-infant care.
La Trobe University Associate Professor Suzanne Dyson said the findings were not surprising.
“It doesn’t deter young people from having sex and doesn’t justify the expense,“ she said.
“If you’re a young person caught up in the passion of being in a sexual relationship, thinking about what might happen with a baby is probably the last thing on your mind.”
Monash University Senior Research Fellow Heather Rowe, who was not involved in the study, said the program was intended to create negative messages: that caring for a baby is a 24/7 job, that it’s demanding, that there are no breaks and that the young person will feel trapped.
But it might be sending the opposite message to someone who feels they would like a baby to love and care for, and to love them.
Experts agreed a change in policy and education was needed.
Young people need non-judgmental sex and relationships education and ready access to contraceptives, said Dr Rowe. Accessible reproductive health services are vital in reducing teen pregnancies.
Professor Dyson added it was important to educate teens to develop critical thinking skills and understanding of respectful and consensual relationships.
“We have to treat them as capable people who are able to make decisions, not just threaten them with negative outcomes,” she said.