All About Ultrasounds

Your first look at your developing baby!

What's an Ultrasound?

If you're pregnant, chances are you'll have an ultrasound at some point. Read on to learn what ultrasounds are, why they're necessary, and what they feel like.

Ultrasounds are sound-wave pictures that help doctors see internal fetal and maternal structures. The ultrasound probe scans across the mother's abdomen or inside her vagina. The transducer transmits high-frequency sound waves that echo back and are transformed into a picture on a video screen. This picture shows the fetus inside the womb. Often, parents will be given a printout of the ultrasound to keep.

At six weeks' gestation, it's possible to see the baby's heartbeat. For many expectant parents, it's an added bonus that an ultrasound given after 20 weeks can sometimes identify the sex of the baby. However, in some cases it's not possible to see the baby's genitalia and parents are kept guessing.

Risk of Miscarriage from Amnio Low

Study shows that amniocentesis, a test for genetic abnormalities in a fetus, is safer than we once thought.

For years, women have agonized over whether or not to have amniocentesis performed during pregnancy fearing a miscarriage risk of one in 200 pregnancies. New research proves there's far less to worry about than we thought - the current stats are closer to one in 1,600.

What Is Amniocentesis?
Amniocentesis involves inserting a needle into the abdomen to remove a small amount of the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus. The fluid is then tested to diagnose or rule out various birth defects (including Down syndrome) and certain inherited diseases. The procedure is generally performed in the second trimester.

Should You Get Amniocentesis

This test can check for birth defects early in your pregnancy.

Who needs to take the test, and why?
Amniocentesis (or "amnio") is currently the most accurate test available for detecting a variety of birth defects and genetic diseases. All pregnant women age 35 and over are offered amnio, because they face an increased risk of having a child with chromosomal abnormality such as Down syndrome. Your doctor may also recommend the test if you have a family history of genetic disease or chromosomal abnormality, or if your ultrasound, alpha-fetoprotein levels, or multiple marker screening tests have yielded suspicious results. Some women who don't meet any of the criteria for the test choose to have one for their own peace of mind. Amnio also reveals the sex of the baby, however, it is never given just for this reason (and your doctor can keep the sex a secret if you'd rather be surprised).

Glucose Screening

Learn what these painless tests are, and why it's important to have them done during your second trimester.

When is the test taken?
Glucose screening is usually done between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. If the test, which screens for gestational diabetes, reveals elevated levels of blood glucose (sugar), a glucose tolerance test is then given to confirm the gestational diabetes diagnosis.

Who needs to take the test, and why?
You should have a glucose screening during pregnancy if you are over 30, have a family history of diabetes, had a troubled earlier pregnancy or are obese. But even if you don't fit any of these criteria, your practitioner may still advise taking this safe and simple test, because about half of the women who develop gestational diabetes have no known risk factors. About 15 to 20 percent of women who take this screening will show abnormal levels of glucose and will be given the more involved (and more precise) glucose tolerance test. About 15 percent of the women given the second test will be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

The Latest on Genetic Testing

How much can you learn from prenatal genetic testing? We went to the experts to find out.

There are a few different categories of genetic testing that parents should know about, says Ellen Simpson, Ph.D., a genetics counselor in the prenatal diagnostic center at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. "All these tests are optional, even the screening tests," she says. "Some people don't want testing and are comfortable with ambiguity. Some people feel just knowing that a genetic condition is possible is enough preparation, others want to connect with a support group or meet the doctors who will care for the baby after birth. And, depending on what the condition is, you could save the baby's life by delivering at a special hospital rather than a regular community hospital."

Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) Test

Learn about the accuracy of the alpha-fetoprotein test.

Question
How accurate is the AFP test?

Answer
Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is a protein produced by a developing fetus. The AFP test, usually performed at 15 to 18 weeks of pregnancy, was designed to look for babies with neural tube defects, such as an open spinal cord or brain. During this stage of pregnancy, the AFP levels of many women carrying babies with neural tube defects is higher than expected. The test will pick up the majority of babies with this condition, but unfortunately not all.

RH Factor Test

Who has it, when, why, and what the results mean.

When is the test taken?
After you've found out you're pregnant, a blood sample is taken during your first prenatal visit to the doctor. More blood will likely be drawn during later prenatal checkups.

Who needs to take the test, and why?
Blood tests are routine for all pregnant women. The tests determine your blood type (A, B, AB, or O) and Rh factor (negative or positive). In addition, your blood will be tested for anemia (a test that will probably be repeated later in your pregnancy), for infections such as hepatitis B and syphilis, and for infection with and antibodies to German measles (rubella). You may be offered additional tests for HIV and toxoplasmosis.

Pap Smear

What it is, who has it, when, why, and what it tells you.

When is the test taken?
A Pap smear should be a routine part of the gynecological care received by every woman over 18 years old and by younger women who are sexually active. It is also an especially important part of good prenatal care, and it is usually taken at the first prenatal visit.

Who needs to take the test, and why?
A Pap smear is routine for all pregnant women. The test checks for cervical cancer or conditions that could lead to cancer. At the same time, your healthcare provider will also test for infections including sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, which can present dangers to the fetus, including miscarriage or infection at birth.

Ultrasounds

Your first look at your developing baby!

What's an Ultrasound?

If you're pregnant, chances are you'll have an ultrasound at some point. Read on to learn what ultrasounds are, why they're necessary, and what they feel like.

Ultrasounds are sound-wave pictures that help doctors see internal fetal and maternal structures. The ultrasound probe scans across the mother's abdomen or inside her vagina. The transducer transmits high-frequency sound waves that echo back and are transformed into a picture on a video screen. This picture shows the fetus inside the womb. Often, parents will be given a printout of the ultrasound to keep.

At six weeks' gestation, it's possible to see the baby's heartbeat. For many expectant parents, it's an added bonus that an ultrasound given after 20 weeks can sometimes identify the sex of the baby. However, in some cases it's not possible to see the baby's genitalia and parents are kept guessing.

Urinalysis

What it is, who has it, when, why, and what it tells you.

When is the test taken?
A urinalysis, or urine test, is typically done at regular intervals throughout your pregnancy. You'll probably be asked to give a urine sample at every prenatal checkup.

Who needs to take the test, and why?
Urinalysis is routine for all pregnant women. Your urine is tested for increased amounts of sugar, which could indicate gestational diabetes, and increased amounts of protein, which could be a sign of preeclampsia. Both of these conditions require special treatment, and it's best to catch them as soon as possible. Your urine will likely also be tested for signs of a kidney or bladder infection, which would require treatment.

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