Pregnancy Is Contagious

Does it seem like all your high school friends are having babies at the same time? You’re not crazy.

National Journal
May 29, 2014, 7:56 a.m.
“The study shows the con­ta­gion is par­tic­u­larly strong with­in a short win­dow of time.”

It starts slowly. A baby shows up on your Face­book feed. Your friends, like you, are get­ting older, set­tling down and start­ing fam­il­ies. Pretty soon, your en­tire news­feed is flooded with tiny chil­dren covered in what was sup­posed to be their first ex­per­i­ence with sol­id food, birth­day parties, and all the small mile­stones of a child’s de­vel­op­ment (“his first wink!”).

It’s an epi­dem­ic of cute, in which every one of your old high school friends seems to be hav­ing chil­dren around the same time. And new re­search says you’re not crazy to think so.

Preg­nancy is con­ta­gious. That’s the con­clu­sion of a study just pub­lished in the Amer­ic­an So­ci­olo­gic­al Re­view; the de­cision to have a child is in­flu­enced by so­cial net­works stretch­ing back to high school. “A friend’s child­bear­ing pos­it­ively in­flu­ences an in­di­vidu­al’s risk of be­com­ing a par­ent,” the study con­cludes, with a phras­ing re­min­is­cent of “friends don’t let friends do drugs.”

Fur­ther­more, “an in­di­vidu­al’s risk of child­bear­ing starts in­creas­ing after a friend’s child­bear­ing,” reach­ing “a peak around two years later.” Coau­thor Nicoletta Balbo summed those res­ults up like this in a press re­lease: “The study shows the con­ta­gion is par­tic­u­larly strong with­in a short win­dow of time.” Like the flu.

Though this isn’t about high school preg­nancy pacts and teen moms. (Teen preg­nancy rates are ac­tu­ally at their low­est in years.) This study looked at the ef­fects of high school friends 15 years on, fol­low­ing 1,700 wo­men tracked from the age of 15 to around 30. In the group, the me­di­an age for birth of the first child was 27.

The re­search also didn’t find any link between high school friends and un­in­ten­ded preg­nan­cies. The im­plic­a­tion here is in­tu­it­ive: Friends in­flu­ence ma­jor life de­cisions.

“Hav­ing a child (or not) is the out­come of sev­er­al in­ter­re­lated de­cisions and be­ha­vi­ors, ran­ging from com­mit­ting to a uni­on, to hav­ing sex, us­ing con­tra­cep­tion, and hav­ing an abor­tion,” the au­thors write. “Each ac­tion may be in­flu­enced by peers’ and friends’ be­ha­vi­ors.”

With fam­il­ies grow­ing smal­ler, the re­search­ers sug­gest that peer groups are tak­ing the place of sib­lings. It’s nat­ur­al to want your child to grow up around cous­ins. Aside from the so­cial­iz­a­tion be­ne­fits, there are some cost-shar­ing be­ne­fits as well (free babysit­ting ar­range­ments, car­pools, etc.) as hav­ing chil­dren around the same time. Where­as in the past, people might have looked to sib­lings for such sup­port, it may be now that they look more to friends.

“We as­sume that hav­ing friends with whom in­di­vidu­als can share their ex­per­i­ences as par­ents may re­duce the un­cer­tainty as­so­ci­ated with par­ent­hood,” the au­thors write.

High school, wheth­er many of us would like to ad­mit it or not, can set the tra­ject­ory of the rest of our lives. And a lot of times, it’s for the bet­ter. For one, con­sider that lifelong friend­ships are cor­rel­ated with longev­ity. In times when in­di­vidu­als are no­mad­ic, and fam­il­ies are smal­ler, it’s nice to know that the in­flu­ence of a good friend doesn’t fade, even over a dec­ade.

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