Early and continued prenatal care can help prevent premature labor and complications

December 01, 2012

In a brief period of only 280 days, a baby can be conceived and born. During the first three weeks of pregnancy, the fetus grows from a zygote—a one-celled structure—into a blastocyst consisting of about 500 cells. By the fifth week, it’s called an embryo and is about one-seventeenth of an inch long. As tiny as the human embryo is, it has a heart, which begins to beat at this stage of development—an event that can only be detected by ultrasound.

This important occurrence marks the completion of the embryo’s circulatory system—the first functioning system within the body. By the time a woman reaches her sixteenth week of pregnancy, the embryo is called a fetus and all its vital organs are formed. Because the rate of development is so rapid, prenatal care beginning early in pregnancy is extremely important.

During the first visit to an obstetrician, a woman usually has several important screenings. Among them are blood tests to check for blood type, Rh factor, anemia, and immunity to certain diseases such as hepatitis B and German measles, also known as rubella. She also has urine tests to screen for diabetes and certain kidney problems. Future visits include more urine tests, as well as weight and blood pressure monitoring. The obstetrician will also listen to the fetal heartbeat (after the 12th week) and assess the size and position of the uterus and fetus. There may also be specialized tests to check for fetal abnormalities.

These prenatal visits are very important. They monitor not only the health of the mother, but the unborn child. Pregnancy can trigger a number of conditions, including gestational diabetes. This form of the disease affects patients who have never had diabetes before. Although it usually disappears after delivery, gestational diabetes can affect the baby if the condition is untreated or poorly controlled.

The same is true for gestational high blood pressure, which can affect the mother's kidneys and other organs, as well as cause low birth weight and premature delivery. However, nearly 50 percent of premature deliveries occur in women who have no known risk factors at all. In fact, premature birth is the number one obstetric problem in the nation, putting babies at risk for a number of serious problems.

Early and continued prenatal care can help a woman avoid premature delivery and other serious conditions that can cause problems for both the mother and fetus. In some cases, if certain fetal abnormalities are detected, UC Irvine Medical Center pediatric surgeons and neonatologists (specialists in he care of high-risk newborns) can correct these conditions while the baby is still in the womb, giving the child the best possible chance for a normal, healthy life after birth.

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