Every mom-to-be hopes for a healthy baby, but it can be hard not to worry. Fortunately, a wide array of tests for pregnant women can help reassure them and keep them informed throughout their pregnancies.
What do prenatal tests find?
Prenatal tests can help identify health problems that could endanger both a woman and her unborn baby, some of which are treatable. However, these tests have limitations.
As an expectant parent, it’s important to educate yourself about them and to think about what you would do if a health problem is detected in either you or you baby.
Prenatal tests are given in the first, second and third trimesters. In a mother, they can determine key things about her health that can affect her baby’s healthy development, such as whether she has gestational diabetes, anemia or other health conditions.
In a developing child, prenatal tests can identify:
- Treatable health problems that can affect the baby’s health
- Characteristics of the baby, including size, sex, age and placement in the uterus
- The chances that a baby has certain birth defects or genetic problems
- Certain types of fetal abnormalities, like heart problems
“Some prenatal tests are screening tests and only reveal the possibility of a problem,” said Dr. Melissa Mancuso, director of maternal fetal medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Other prenatal tests are diagnostic, meaning they can determine, with a fair degree of certainty, whether a fetus has a specific problem.”
Who gets prenatal tests?
Certain prenatal tests are considered routine, such as those that check urine levels for protein, sugar or signs of infection. Other non-routine tests are recommended only for certain women, especially those with high-risk pregnancies.
These may include women who:
- Are age 35 or older
- Have had a premature baby or baby with a birth defect
- Are carrying more than 1 baby
- Have high blood pressure, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, kidney problems, cancer, a sexually transmitted disease, asthma or a seizure disorder
- Have an ethnic background in which genetic disorders are common (or their partner does)
- Have a family history of mental retardation (or their partner who does)
“The goal of prenatal screening and diagnosis is really to provide reassurance,” said Dr. Mancuso. “If you look at the statistics, the risk of a woman over age 35 having a baby with a chromosomal abnormality is still less than 1 percent.”
If you or your partner have a family history of genetic problems, you may want to consult with a genetic counselor to help you look at the history of problems in your family and determine the risk to your children.
To decide which tests are right for you, it’s important to carefully discuss with your healthcare provider:
- What these tests are supposed to measure
- How reliable they are
- The potential risks
- Your options and plans if the results indicate a disorder of defect
Understanding test results and limitations
Some prenatal tests can be stressful, and because many aren’t definitive, even a negative result may not completely relieve any anxiety you might be experiencing.
Because many women who have abnormal tests end up having healthy babies and because some of the problems that are detected can’t be treated, some women decide not to have some of the tests.
One important thing to consider is what you’ll do if a birth defect or chromosomal abnormality is discovered. Your healthcare provider or a genetic counselor can help you establish priorities, give you the facts and discuss your options.
When deciding to pursue certain prenatal tests, here are 10 questions to ask your healthcare provider:
- How accurate is this test?
- What are you looking to get from these test results? What do you hope to learn?
- How long before I get the results?
- Is the procedure painful?
- Is the procedure dangerous to me or the fetus?
- Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?
- What could happen if I don’t undergo this test?
- How much will the test cost?
- Will the test be covered by insurance?
- What do I need to do to prepare?
You also can ask your health care provider for literature about each type of test.