Antenatal Checks of Maternal Health

Throughout the course of your pregnancy you are likely to experience a number of different tests and checks, ranging from simple ones to keep an eye on your weight, to more complex tests which ensure that a foetus (the term used to refer to the unborn after the 10th week of a pregnancy) is growing healthily. This article details a number of the most common antenatal checks and tests. 

Tests of weight and height

Any height and weight tests you might take during antenatal appointments are not meant to embarrass you, but instead allow your midwife and/or doctor a means by which to track the progress of the pregnancy. Height and weight measures are usually taken right at the beginning of a pregnancy, and not regularly throughout the following 9 months.

The reason both height and weight are taken during your initial appointment is because those measurements can be used to calculate your body mass index, also known as the BMI. The BMI is a value that indicates how healthy your weight is for your particular height group, and generally speaking a BMI between 20 and 25 is healthy. By determining your healthy weight, your midwife or doctor can give you advice on nutrition and exercise during your pregnancy, and have an idea of how much baby weight you put on during the later stages of the pregnancy. You might be surprised to learn that in most cases the 10 or so kg that women can put on through pregnancy is actually acquired after the 20th week, well into the third trimester.

Blood pressure tests

Unlike your height and weight, your blood pressure, sometimes shortened to BP, is taken during every appointment with your antenatal team. Your blood pressure is essentially a measure of how blood is flowing through your arteries and veins, and a healthy BP is sign of good general health.

This is because a healthy blood pressure is a good sign that the pregnancy is going well. There are a number of different potential BP issues that may crop up during a pregnancy, which is why a close eye is kept on it. Pregnancy-induced hypertension is an elevated BP which occurs during the later stages of a pregnancy, and variations of that condition which you may have heard of include pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. If left unchecked these can cause, or can be a sign of, serious health problems, which is why your BP will be measured during every antenatal visit.

Urine tests

A urine test is not perhaps the most pleasant antenatal check, but it is an important method of checking for signs of certain infections and physical issues. Levels of proteins are checked during a urine test, as abnormal amounts of these substances can be a sign of common pregnancy ailments like pre-eclampsia.

Blood tests

Blood tests are often a routine part of antenatal care, and are performed to check for a number of different things, including, for example, your blood group and anaemia. A blood test is used to determine whether you are either rhesus negative or rhesus positive, which can have important consequences on your health. If you are rhesus positive then your blood cells carry a very specific molecule on their surface called a D antigen, which plays a part in your body’s ability to recognise these cells as ‘own’ cells, i.e. cells coming from your body as opposed to foreign invaders.

Rhesus negative mothers can carry rhesus positive babies (if the father is rhesus positive), which means that if any of the baby’s blood makes its way into the mother’s blood vessels, defensive elements called antibodies are produced. These usually respond to foreign cells to ensure health and safety, but in this instance, because the foetal blood cells carry an antigen which maternal blood cells don’t, antibodies are produced against what the maternal system deems as a threat.

This response can have a negative effect on the health of the baby, and tests are done for rhesus disease so that the appropriate defensive measures can be taken, namely anti-D injections which can keep both mother and child to be safe.

Blood tests also look to determine whether you are anaemic or not. Anaemia commonly effects pregnant women because of the various stresses the body is under. Anaemia is essentially a lower than usual count of red blood cells, the component of our blood which carries oxygen to where it is needed. The results are fatigue and general tiredness, which can escalate to serious health concerns for pregnant women who are nourishing a growing life as well as themselves. Anaemia affects many pregnant women, which is why midwives and doctors watch out for it and recommend iron supplements.

Tests for infections

You can potentially be offered tests for a number of infectious diseases which can have a detrimental effect on the pregnancy. This will depend on your medical practitioner and whether they think it is prudent to carry out one of these tests, and also on whether you want to undergo testing yourself. Tests for illnesses like rubella, syphilis, hepatitis B and C, and HIV are often performed.

Do I have to take these tests?

At any point you can refuse a particular test if you don’t feel comfortable with it, however it is important to remember that any tests your medical care provider suggests or offers will be purely to ensure the health of both yourself and your unborn offspring. As such it is important to consider these tests carefully before thinking about refusing them. If you are unsure about a particular test, then the most advisable course of action is to discuss it with your doctor or midwife, who will be able to address your concerns.

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