Concerns about the health of your baby, even before she is born, are completely natural. Fortunately, a wide array of tests for pregnant women, called prenatal tests, can help reassure and inform parents-to-be. Read on for our expert answers to some commonly asked prenatal testing questions.

What Do Prenatal Tests Find?

Some prenatal tests are screening tests and only reveal the possibility of a problem. Others are diagnostic and can determine a problem with some certainty. In the interest of making the more specific determination, the screening test may be followed by a diagnostic test.

Tests can detect key things about the mother's health that can affect baby's health, such as:

  • blood type
  • gestational diabetes, anemia or other health conditions
  • immunity to certain diseases
  • sexually transmitted disease (STD) or cervical cancer

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 and age
  • baby's placement in the uterus
  • certain birth defects or genetic problems
  • certain types of fetal abnormalities, like heart problems

Are Prenatal Tests Definitive?

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.

Who Gets Prenatal Tests?

Certain prenatal tests are considered routine so most pregnant women receiving prenatal care will get them. They include things like checking 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 such as women who:

  • are age 17 or younger, or 35 or older
  • have had a premature baby
  • have had a baby with a birth defect - especially heart or genetic problems
  • are carrying more than one baby
  • have high blood pressure, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, kidney problems, cancer, a sexually transmitted disease, asthma or a seizure disorder
  • have (or have a partner who has) an ethnic background in which genetic disorders are common
  • have (or have a partner who has) a family history of mental retardation

What Should I Ask My Doctor about Prenatal Tests?

To decide which tests are right for you, you may want to ask your doctor:

  • 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 should also talk to your doctor or genetic counselor about what you'll do in the event that a birth defect or chromosomal abnormality is discovered. They can help you establish priorities, give you the facts and discuss your options.

Can I Improve My Baby's Chances to Be Healthy?

The best way for mothers-to-be to avoid birth defects and problems with the pregnancy is to take precautions, such as:

  • not smoking (and avoiding secondhand smoke)
  • not drinking alcohol or taking other drugs (check with your doctor about prescription and over-the-counter medications)
  • avoiding fumes, chemicals, radiation and excessive heat
  • eating a healthy diet
  • taking prenatal vitamins, even before becoming pregnant
  • getting exercise (as approved by your doctor)
  • getting plenty of rest
  • getting prenatal care, beginning with a preconception visit to the doctor