You've decided to start a family, but have no idea what comes next. Here's our no-nonsense guide to the tests available during pregnancy.
I'm pregnant - what tests should I be organising?
Once you've registered with a midwife, you'll be offered a series of health tests and check ups. The aim is to monitor your progress, check on the baby's development, and identify any possible problems. You don't have to take any kind of antenatal testing - the smart move is to find out what's on offer, and decide what feels right for you.
What is it? A commonly used, non-invasive technique, using high frequency sound waves. It allows a trained medical professional to look at the baby in the womb. A conductive gel is put on your stomach and then the sonographer (ultrasound operator) scans the area with a hand-held instrument. The black and white image of your unborn baby appears on a monitor attached to a computer. The sonographer can measure the size of your baby and check on its development.
When does it happen? At 8-12 weeks you can have a dating scan. This determines when your baby is due, and checks for any obvious abnormalities. A more thorough scan takes place between 18-22 weeks. Here, the sonographer can check on development of major organs and look for any abnormalities. They will also count fingers and toes, and check for conditions like spina bifida and cleft lip/palate. Ultrasound is also used as part of other forms of testing. See below for the lowdown.
Is it safe? Most doctors insist that an ultrasound scan is safe for you and baby. Some voices in the medical profession are concerned about the impact on hearing and cell division in a small number of babies. For more information, consult your GP or midwife.
Can I tell the baby's gender? Not on the first scan, as the baby is not sufficiently developed for this to be determined visually (i.e. you can't see his or her bits!) The sonographer should be able to tell at the second scan, but won't tell you if you'd prefer keep it as a surprise.
What else should I know?
Ultrasound scans are available free on the NHS, and also privately. Be aware that the quality of the scanning machine can determine the quality of the results. Much also depends on the position of your baby in the womb, and the duration of the scan itself. You may want a photographic still to take home, but this can cost a few pounds (so take some coins with you).
Others forms of testing
Between 10-13 weeks: For women with a high risk of having a baby with Down's syndrome (such as expectant mothers over 35), a Nuchal Translucency Scan can help to predict the probability. It involves a scan to measure the fluid between two folds of skin at the back of the foetus' neck. For more details, consult your doctor or midwife.
Before 14 weeks: Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) involves inserting a needle into the womb and taking a sample of the placenta. The test can provide a wealth of data about the health of the baby. However, there is a 2% risk of miscarriage following the procedure. Tends to be an option for mothers at risk of babies with health problems.
Between 16-18 weeks: A blood sample can be taken to test for indications of conditions such as Down's Syndrome and spina bifida.
Around 20 weeks: Amniocentesis is a similar procedure to CVS. It involves inserting a needle into the womb, from where a sample of amniotic fluid is taken and then tested for any indication of Down's syndrome. There is a 1-2% chance of miscarriage following this procedure. The risk is less than for a CVS, but an amniocentesis tends to be carried out several weeks later.
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