When should I begin prenatal care during pregnancy?

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Answered by: Amy, An Expert in the Pregnancy and Birth Category
Prenatal care during pregnancy is a critical part of giving a baby the best start in life. Many pregnancy complications, such as diabetes and hypertension, do not necessarily cause symptoms in the mother but do pose serious risk to both mother and child. Therefore it is critical for an expectant mother to begin prenatal care as early as possible in her pregnancy.

A medical practitioner will want to see an expectant mother early in her pregnancy to determine due date, to evaluate the mother’s health and to give guidance to the mother. The due date may be determined by the timing of the last menstrual period or by ultrasound examination. Any chronic medical conditions the mother has, such as asthma or depression, will be evaluated and the best course of treatment throughout pregnancy will be determined. Counseling on diet, exercise and lifestyle will be given as well.

As the pregnancy continues, prenatal care will include watching the growth and development of the fetus through measurements of the mother’s abdomen and monitoring of fetal heart sounds. If needed, a care provider may also order ultrasounds, amniocentesis and other more involved tests to assess whether all is going well with the pregnancy. For example, if the growth of the mother’s abdomen is exceeding or lagging behind expectations, these other tests may be ordered. It is also during mid-pregnancy that many tests for genetic abnormalities are performed.

In addition to monitoring the health of the baby, the practitioner will keep an eye on the mother’s health. Blood pressure and urine tests are performed regularly to detect anything out of the ordinary. Lab tests are ordered, some with simple blood work and others with more complex testing protocols. For example, the test for diabetes requires the mother to drink a high glucose load and then have her blood tested periodically to follow the blood glucose levels. These tests allow the practitioner to be proactive and prevent complications that could arise if the conditions were discovered later.

As the due date approaches, visits to the care provider increase to keep a close eye on mother and baby. The baby will be monitored for any signs that an expedient delivery would be beneficial, and final lab tests on the mother will watch for complications that are likely to arise closer to delivery, such as pre-eclampsia, in which the blood pressure and liver enzymes are elevated. The mother will also be tested for the presence of Group B Strep, a normal bacteria that is present in one third of women and can cause severe infections in newborns.

Early in pregnancy is the best time to start prenatal care. The growing infant can be monitored from the very beginning for any signs of health issues, the mother’s previous conditions can be managed appropriately and any problems that arise can be detected early and treated properly. When a mother receives excellent prenatal care during pregnancy, she lowers the risks to both her and her child and gives her new baby the best start possible.

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