To know or not to know ...

Expectant parents can learn much about their baby before it's born

Expectant parents can learn much about their baby before it's born

January 20, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Dr. David Baltierra slowly and deliberately moved his ultrasound probe across Jackie Darlington's bulging abdomen.

"OK, Jackie," Baltierra said in a soft voice. "There is your baby's brain. We're going to take some measurements. The parts of the brain look normal."

And with those few words, a mother's nerves were calmed.

Ultrasound technology has long allowed expectant parents to get a glimpse of their baby growing in the uterus. The sound-wave device allows doctors to see whether everything appears normal and can reassure parents-to-be that their baby will be born with functioning organs and all 10 fingers and toes.

With an increased understanding of genetics, more knowledge about the factors that cause problems in pregnancy, and greater technology in prenatal testing, today's expectant parents have many options available to them when it comes to learning more about their baby.


Still, the decision of whether to use specialized prebirth tests is purely a personal one, Tri-State area doctors said.

Is it a boy or girl?

The Herald-Mail found many Tri-State area families were anxious to know the sex of their baby but were willing to wait until birth to find out if there might be any complications.

Robin and Jim Harper of Hagerstown, parents of a boy and a girl, said they definitely wanted to know the gender of their children before they were born.

"We wanted to know. We're planners," Robin Harper said. Once the Harpers knew the sex of the baby, "You think, 'OK, I'm looking for boy things and boy colors.' I can pick a name. I enjoyed when talking about (the baby), to refer to 'him' and later by his name, Jarrett," she remembered of her first pregnancy.

Baltierra, who practices at the West Virginia University Maternity and Women's Center in Ranson, W.Va., and Dr. Andrew Oh of Comprehensive Women's Care in Hagers-town estimated that about 80 percent of their patients want to know the sex of the baby before birth.

For the Smiths, of Cascade, finding out their baby's gender was a matter of preparation.

"We wanted to know," said Sarah Smith, who delivered her daughter Nov. 21. "We wanted to be able to prepare more so that when she came home she'd have the proper clothes."

Knowing the sex of the baby "helped us a lot with deciding how we wanted to do her room," Smith added.

Tests can help parents

Besides the sex of the baby, ultrasounds can detect problems that can arise during nine months of pregnancy. With more precise ultrasound equipment, problems with a baby's development and a woman's placenta often can be discovered as well as conditions such as cleft palate, spina bifida, congenital heart defects, brain defects and some hereditary defects.

Although it is common for American women to have one or two ultrasounds throughout their pregnancy, there are few medical reasons to do so with a normal pregnancy, doctors said.

For women considered to have low-risk pregnancies, "it has not been proven that the routine ultrasound dramatically improves the pregnancy outcome," Oh said.

For some patients, however, there can be emotional benefits to an ultrasound.

"There's no question that when a patient sees their baby on the screen moving, seeing the heart beating, you are bonding with the baby," Oh said. "I can't tell you how many times patients have seen that monitor and broken down in tears. It's a pretty touching moment."

For patients who wish to know more about their growing baby's genetic makeup, a screening test can be administered. Called a triple or quad screen, the test takes a blood sample from the mother, measuring levels of three or four different hormones associated with pregnancy. The quad screen is considered to be a more accurate test, doctors explained.

The test cannot give conclusive results, but "it tells mom if there is a higher chance of something being wrong," Baltierra said. The blood screening tests can determine an increased chance of neural tube defects, chromosomal abnormalities or genetic disorders.

Oh and Baltierra both said about 50 percent of their patients opt to have the screening test.

Wait and see

Darlington, 21, who is six months pregnant with her second child, said she is not interested in knowing more than can be determined with the ultrasound.

"As far as the birth defects go, I would rather not know," she said. "It doesn't matter either way. He or she will be loved just the same."

Several families in the Tri-State region had a similar sentiment when it came to testing for possible birth defects or chromosomal abnormalities.

The Daleys of Falling Waters, W.Va., knew they could opt for advanced testing that would screen for abnormalities like Down syndrome. They decided to skip those tests.

"We were going to keep the baby no matter what," said Christopher Daley, the father of Mackenzie Daley, a healthy baby girl born Dec. 26. "We decided it didn't matter. If the baby had a disability, we were going to keep it anyway."

The Thompsons of Clear Spring had a similar approach.

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