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What is a Fetal Screen?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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A fetal screen is a diagnostic test used to check a fetus for signs of complications or abnormalities. There are a number of fetal screening tests available and such tests are a routine part of prenatal care. An obstetrician can discuss testing options with expecting mothers and make testing recommendations on the basis of medical history and other factors, like the age of the mother. Some fetal screening tests are invasive and can be dangerous, while others are minimally invasive and do not pose risks to mother or fetus.

One example of a fetal screen is a test of the mother's blood. Certain medical issues can be revealed with blood testing, such as an Rh incompatibility between mother and fetus. Physical examinations are also a form of fetal screen, as are ultrasound examinations to visualize the fetus and the uterus. An ultrasound can provide important information about how the fetus is lying in the uterus and can be used to check for obvious physical birth defects, as well as tell-tale signs of conditions like Down syndrome. It is important to be aware that false negatives and positives can both occur and if a positive result is returned, additional testing is usually recommended to confirm.

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More invasive fetal screen options include procedures like amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. These tests can be uncomfortable and may increase the risk of complications and they are only recommended when a doctor feels that there is an increased risk of a condition that can only be diagnosed with this type of medical screening. This type of fetal screen can be used to check for genetic abnormalities to help women make decisions about pregnancy and prepare for the birth of a child.

Fetal screening is conducted by an obstetrician and can involve input from genetic counselors and other medical professionals. If testing reveals a positive result for an abnormality, a genetic counselor can provide information about the implications for the pregnancy, as well as future pregnancies. In addition to talking with genetic counselors, parents can also talk with specialists who treat people with genetic conditions to learn more about those conditions.

Receiving fetal screening is only one aspect of prenatal care. Maternal screening is performed to look for risks that could lead to complications, such as gestational diabetes, and pregnant women are also usually advised to observe a number of precautions to protect the developing fetus.

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