Human adolescent mothers have an increased risk of delivering low birth weight and premature infants with high mortality rates within the first year of life. Studies using a highly controlled adolescent sheep paradigm demonstrate that, in young growing females, the hierarchy of nutrient partitioning during pregnancy is altered to promote growth of the maternal body at the expense of the gradually evolving nutrient requirements of the gravid uterus and mammary gland. Thus, overnourishing adolescent dams throughout pregnancy results in a major restriction in placental mass, and leads to a significant decrease in birth weight relative to adolescent dams receiving a moderate nutrient intake. High maternal intakes are also associated with increased rates of spontaneous abortion in late gestation and, for ewes delivering live young, with a reduction in the duration of gestation and in the quality and quantity of colostrum accumulated prenatally. As the adolescent dams are of equivalent age at the time of conception, these studies indicate that nutritional status during pregnancy rather than biological immaturity predisposes the rapidly growing adolescents to adverse pregnancy outcome. Nutrient partitioning between the maternal body and gravid uterus is putatively orchestrated by a number of endocrine hormones and, in this review, the roles of both maternal and placental hormones in the regulation of placental and fetal growth in this intriguing adolescent paradigm are discussed. Impaired placental growth, particularly of the fetal component of the placenta, is the primary constraint to fetal growth during late gestation in the overnourished dams and nutritional switch-over studies indicate that high nutrient intakes during the second two-thirds of pregnancy are most detrimental to pregnancy outcome. In addition, it may be possible to alter the nutrient transport function of the growth-restricted placenta in that the imposition of a catabolic phase during the final third of pregnancy in previously rapidly growing dams results in a modest increase in lamb birth weight.
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