The Genetic Health Risks You Should Know About Before Getting Pregnant

Getting pregnant is a very individual process and choice for each woman. Some carefully map it out, while others prefer to let nature take its course. Many women even choose to go it alone, conceiving either via a donor or with a partner who won't be around for the aftermath. However detailed or casual your pregnancy planning, though, there is one issue you should be aware of before you get pregnant, and that is the possibility of your child inheriting a genetic condition.

As Julia Wilkinson, a reproductive health expert who works as a certified genetic counselor with Invitae, tells The List, "We are all 'carriers' of genetic conditions, but since our own health is not usually affected and we may not have any affected family members, we often don't know we are carriers until we have genetic carrier screening." Medline reports that while prenatal genetic screening can cost several thousand dollars, it may be possible to have some simple screening done for under $100, and Quest Diagnostics says that many types of insurance do cover this testing so it may be more affordable than you might think.

Why you might need genetic screening

While having just one parent as a carrier of a genetic condition is unlikely to affect the baby in most cases, Wilkinson says if "both partners ... [are] carrier[s] of the same condition ... [this will] increase the chances of a child being born with that genetic condition." She says in these instances, if both parents carry an autosomal recessive condition, this means there's a 25% chance of the baby being born with that condition. If you and your partner both get screened for a broad range of potential genetic issues, you can then cross-match to see which ones are most likely to pose a risk for your unborn child.

If you have to pick and choose what tests you can get, it's best to hit the top ones. Wilkinson tells us that some of the most commonly found genetic conditions include cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, rare blood disorders called hemoglobinopathies, and Tay-Sachs, a disease the National Organization for Rare Disorders says is most commonly found in those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

When is the best time to get genetic screening?

As Wilkinson advises, "The ideal time for carrier screening is pre-pregnancy, when couples are trying to conceive, or around the same time as taking ovulation tests or prenatal vitamins." The reason for this is that in case the test results indicate possible red flags, it will obviously be easier to address these before the emotions that come along with an actual pregnancy come into play. Wilkinson does say that carrier screening is also possible to have done once a woman is pregnant, although she feels that "timing is important," adding that "the earlier you test, the more options are available to you."

While it's true that prenatal screening, as Wilkinson says, "provides valuable information that allows couples to make the most informed decisions during family planning, pregnancy and beyond," post-natal screening is also something you can have done. According to Medline, many states will actually subsidize the cost of screening for infants, although even if they don't, the costs usually only range from $15 to $60. If you have your newborn screened, this will give you a heads-up about any potential medical conditions they may have in store and allow you to plan for how to deal with these should they arise.

How should you deal with the results?

If the results from your genetic screening indicate you have nothing to worry about, then yay! You can go out for a nice mocktail to celebrate your good fortune and toast the health of your future baby. If, on the other hand, you undergo genetic screening and you are identified as a carrier for any particular condition, you should try, if at all possible, to arrange for the baby's other parent to be screened for this same condition. Should they turn up positive, as well, then you may wish to discuss the results with your physician or maybe even a genetic counselor in order to learn more about the risks that will be involved for you and your child.

Don't think that your dreams of parenthood are shattered, even if you and your partner are both identified as carriers of the same genetic condition. Wilkinson points out that "there are several options available, including additional diagnostic tests during pregnancy to be better prepared, or alternative conception options such as in vitro fertilization or the use of egg and sperm donors." While she admits "there is not one right choice for everyone," she does say it's important to get all the information you can in order to determine the best options for you and your family-to-be.