For a whole 9 months, your baby is happily hidden beneath your protective bump. Of course they're pretty content wriggling and growing inside your warm and nourishing belly – but it does create a bit of a logistical challenge to see what's going on in there.
This is where antenatal checks and tests come in. Even if, like me, you're not too keen on being poked and prodded with needles and wands, these screenings provide you and your midwife with an inside look into your baby's growth and development. With each reassuring check on their health (and hopefully an all-clear sign), you're one step closer to the big day – and finally seeing your little one on the other side of the bump!
what are pregnancy screenings?
At different points in your pregnancy, you can opt to have checks for all sorts of potential issues, from genetic disorders to physical development issues. These are usually blood and urine tests as well as ultrasounds, all of which help you and your doctor keep an eye on what's going on inside your belly.
These can be some of the most exciting and reassuring moments of your pregnancy – there's nothing quite like getting the all-clear thumbs up from a doctor or midwife.
It's also a good chance to chat to the experts about how you're feeling. After all, a healthy baby needs a happy and healthy mum, so your wellbeing is just as important as your little one's.
what kind of screening tests are available?
So your doctor knows the happy news – after a round of congratulations, they'll get back to business and ask if you want to schedule a screening test. At this stage, they'll be looking for the likes of Down's Syndrome, Edwards' Syndrome and Patau's Syndrome. This combined test – including an ultrasound to check baby's 'nuchal translucency' and a blood test to look at hormone levels – will take place in a hospital somewhere between 10 and 14 weeks.
If your growing little one is lying at a funny angle, your doctor might not be able to get a good look at nuchal fold on the back of their neck and won't be able to check its translucency. If this happens, you'll be offered the chance to pop in for another blood screening – the Quadruple Test – when you're 14 to 20 weeks pregnant.
This test looks for four substances in your blood: AFP, beta-hCG, uE3, and Inhibin-A. Although this test won't tell you for sure if your baby has Down's Syndrome, it can tell you if they're at high risk or not. These checks won't hurt you or your little one, but the results can sometimes lead to tricky decisions: like whether to get an in-depth amniocentesis test. This gives more accurate results but carries a small risk of miscarriage.
when should you get check-ups during pregnancy?
Most parents-to-be have around 14 prenatal check-ups, but they're not evenly spaced – things tend to ramp up when you hit your third trimester. You get a few antenatal appointments at the beginning, such as:
• a booking appointment at 8–12 weeks
• a dating scan at 8–14 weeks
• a check-up at 16 weeks
• an anomaly scan at 18–20 weeks
Once you reach 25 weeks and the third trimester is around the corner, you'll start checking in with your midwife more often. This is the first time they'll measure your bump and test your blood and urine for extra protein – a sign of pre-eclampsia. Catch-ups with the midwife will then normally take place at 28, 31 and 34 weeks, then every 14 days until the birth.
As soon as you know you're expecting, make sure to have a chat with your boss or HR. Even if you're not yet ready to spill the beans at the office, expectant parents have the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments.
when do you get an ultrasound scan?
The ultrasound screenings are just to make sure everything's ticking over properly. The first takes place around the 12-week mark – but can be as early as 8 weeks, and as late as 14 weeks. This is the first time you'll ever see your baby, who'll be about the size of a lime!
The sonographer rubs a wand over your belly to bring an image of your developing baby up on the big screen. You won't have much of a bump yet, so it's best to go with a full bladder. You may be a wee bit uncomfortable (excuse the pun), but it helps push the womb forward so your baby is front and centre. If you do end up running to the loo, don't worry – with your permission, they can give you a vaginal ultrasound where they pop the wand inside to get a closer view.
Unless you pay for a private scan, your bump's next trip to the silver screen will take place around 18-21 weeks at your mid-pregnancy ultrasound scan. At this point, they’ll check that everything’s going A-OK with baby’s development and might even be able to tell you if you’re expecting a girl or a boy. That is if your little one will stop wriggling long enough to settle where the sonographer can get a clear look at them!
what to do if you have questions
At the end of the day, whichever tests you decide to have, these meetings with your doctor or midwife provide the perfect opportunity for a bit of question time. If you're not sure about any of the screenings, just speak to the trained professional in the room. They’re more qualified to answer your queries and provide reassurance than articles on the internet, many of which could cause you unnecessary worry.
One last word of wisdom is to be kind to yourself and open with your partner about how you’re feeling. Even the standard pregnancy screenings can be stressful at times, and some couples may need further check-ups. So take time to write down your questions before each appointment and talk things through afterwards. Though the tests may leave you feeling emotional, know that they’re simply part of your pregnancy journey and will always have the health of you and your little one in mind.