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Health & Pregnancy

A User's Guide to Prenatal Tests

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WebMD Feature

I must confess -- before I became pregnant, I was a medical wimp. A finger prick before my wedding day and annual checkups and pap smears were the extent of my relationship with doctors, and I liked it that way. But my first prenatal exam changed all that.

I soon discovered that no matter how young or healthy, moms-to-be face a variety of prenatal tests to monitor the health of their babies and their pregnancies. In most cases, these tests offer reassurance that everything is going smoothly, and many of them are meant to spot problems, such as iron deficiency or diabetes, that can be treated before complications occur.

Other tests, particularly those that are used to detect genetic problems, such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis or spina bifida, can present some tough choices and worries for parents-to-be. The initial screening tests are not meant to be conclusive. They are intended to determine if you are at higher-than-usual risk and may call for additional diagnostic tests that carry some risk to the fetus, although the odds of a healthy baby are still high -- only about 2% to 3% of all babies are born with a genetic defect.

To decide which of these tests are right for you, it's important to carefully discuss with your doctor or midwife what these tests are supposed to measure, how reliable they are, the potential risks, and your options and plans if the results hold bad news, says Dr. Michael Mennuti, chairman of obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

"If a woman and her partner say they wouldn't do anything differently if the test showed a problem, then the value of a diagnostic test like amniocentesis or chorionic villi sampling (CVS) isn't there," Dr. Mennuti says. The test might be worthwhile, however, if a couple would consider terminating the pregnancy or simply wants to prepare for a child with special needs, he adds.

Here's a look at the most common prenatal tests you might undergo over the next nine months. Some tests, such as urine or blood tests, might be repeated during your pregnancy, as will routine blood pressure screening. Others, such as CVS and amniocentesis, may not be offered unless your age or other factors indicate that you or your baby are at higher risk for certain conditions or diseases.

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