Guide to pregnancy checkups, screenings & scans

I’m not sure what’s more work: physically growing a baby inside you, or what I like to call the ‘pregnancy admin’ involved in the process. I’m talking blood tests, ultrasounds, midwife appointments, and – most of all – sitting around in waiting rooms. 

Managing your prenatal testing and screening schedule is like a full-time job in itself. Except of course, you need to continue making an appearance at your actual job too, because we rudely don’t get paid to make babies. (What’s that about?)

All this pregnancy admin is for good reason, though. Regular checkups help your care team spot potential pregnancy complications early on, and plan ahead to ensure your labour and birth goes swimmingly. And that’s what we all want, right? A smooth birth, a healthy baby, and preferably an intact vagina at the end of it all. Worth it.

The Raising Children Network says to expect 10–12 appointments throughout your pregnancy if you’re a first-time mum with a low-risk pregnancy. But we’re here to unpack what types of prenatal testing you should be prepared for, and when they’ll take place. 

So get your planner out mama. We’re gonna sort through some of this pregnancy admin right now.

Types of prenatal testing to expect

Pregnancy tests

Even if you’re confident you’re experiencing the early signs of pregnancy, you’ll need to confirm that you’re actually pregnant. Lots of women take an at-home pregnancy test first. These are generally pretty accurate, but a doctor can also test for pregnancy with a urine test or a blood test. This test might be offered at your first prenatal checkup with your GP.

Routine prenatal tests

Throughout pregnancy you’ll have a bunch of routine tests to monitor the health of you and your baby. Most commonly, these include:

  • Blood tests – These may be used to check your iron levels, your blood group, or to test for diabetes or infections.

  • Ultrasounds – You’ll have at least a few ultrasounds during your pregnancy. They’re used to monitor the size and development of your baby, identify how many kids you’re growing in there, calculate your due date, and check for abnormalities as the pregnancy progresses. (Also, they’re a chance to wave to your child – fun!)

  • Physical examinations – Be prepared to whip that bump of yours out on the regular. Your midwife or obstetrician will take measurements, feel around for the position of your baby, and ensure your body is in tip-top shape for the pregnancy.

Prenatal testing for specific medical conditions

Prenatal screenings

During pregnancy you may be asked at certain stages to pee into a cup, do a blood test, or something that makes you equally squeamish. Screenings are about testing for the likelihood of a certain pregnancy complication. For example, a combined first trimester screening test involves a blood test and ultrasound that provides information on whether your baby might have chromosomal abnormalities (i.e. a condition like Down Syndrome.)

Think of prenatal screenings as ‘checking to see if there’s a chance of it’. You might be given a likelihood, such as 1 in 1,000 chance. You can then decide if you’d like to find out for certain through diagnostic testing.

Diagnostic tests

A diagnostic prenatal test can provide a yes/no answer about whether a certain condition is present. Your doctor will take a small sample of tissue from your placenta, or fluid from around your baby, and this is then sent to a lab for testing. 

You do NOT need to have these tests done if you don’t want to. Some mums like to know ahead of time if their baby might have a health condition so they can prepare. Other mums figure they’ll love their baby regardless so it doesn’t really matter. It’s your choice!

What is important to note is that there’s a slight risk of miscarriage with diagnostic testing, as it involves inserting a small needle into your uterus. Your doctor can explain this to you further, but it’s something to mull over.

What a typical prenatal appointment schedule looks like

Now that we know what types of prenatal tests to expect, let’s look at when they’ll be done. 

Below is an example of a prenatal screening and testing schedule for a standard Australian pregnancy with no complications. Of course, your schedule may change a little based on your model of care, your pregnancy, and whether anything unexpected pops up. But you can use this as a basic guide.

First signs of pregnancy (A once-off appointment)

Visit your GP

  • Confirm pregnancy via blood test and/or urine test.

  • Discuss your prenatal care options.

  • Get referrals for blood tests, ultrasounds, and genetic screening tests (if desired).

Additional tests you may need:

  • Pregnancy test – or you might DIY this at home!

  • Blood test – to check for infections, deficiencies (Vitamin D and iron should be checked), and to confirm your blood type. If you’re Rh positive, you may require anti-D injections during your pregnancy.

Weeks 4 to 28 (Monthly visits)

Visit your prenatal care team ~ 3 times

  • Have your blood pressure tested and your general health assessed.

  • Have your belly measured to check baby’s growth.

  • Review results from genetic screening tests, glucose tolerance tests, and blood tests.

  • Chat through any concerns. (AKA ask ALL the questions.)

Additional tests you may need:

  • 12-week ultrasound – you might have this between 11 and 13 weeks. This scan will work out the age and due date of your baby, check for multiples, and screen for chromosomal conditions. If you choose to have a combined first trimester screening test, your doctor can do the nuchal translucency screening here too.

  • Genetic testing in first trimester (optional)
    • Non-invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) – also called the ‘Harmony Test’, it tests for chromosomal abnormalities and indications of conditions like Down Syndrome.
    • Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) – an optional diagnostic test involving a doctor collecting a placenta sample for genetic testing.
    • Nuchal Translucency (NT) Screening – a common genetic test during the first trimester where the doctor measures the fluid at the back of your baby’s neck.

  • 20-week ultrasound – looks at your baby’s growth and development, position of your placenta, and (if you wanna find out) the sex of your baby!

  • Second trimester genetic testing (optional)
    • Maternal Serum Screening (also known as the Quad Test or second trimester quadruple test) – a blood test done ideally during week 15 and 18 to look for four important substances in your blood (alpha-fetoprotein, human chorionic gonadotropin, estriol and inhibin A). This second trimester genetic testing may not be needed if you had tests in your first trimester. 
    • Amniocentesis – an optional diagnostic test taken at 15 to 18 weeks, involving taking a sample of your amniotic fluid to test for chromosomal conditions.

  • Glucose screening test – between 24 and 28 weeks you’ll generally have a second trimester screening blood test for gestational diabetes. The glucose tolerance test involves fasting overnight, drinking a gross sugary drink, and having your blood tested multiple times.

Weeks 29 to 36 (Fortnightly visits)

Visit your prenatal care team ~ 3 times

  • Have your blood pressure tested and your general health assessed.

  • Have your belly measured to check baby’s growth.

  • Have your baby’s heartbeat and movements monitored.

  • Get a referral for your Group B Streptococcus test.

Additional tests you may need:

  • Ultrasounds – If any complications are detected, or if your baby starts getting alarmingly big, you may be booked in for additional scans to measure the amniotic fluid around them and screen for problems.

Week 37 until birth (Weekly visits)

Visit your prenatal care team ~ 4 times

  • Have your blood pressure tested and your general health assessed.

  • Have your belly measured to check your baby’s growth.

  • Have your baby’s heartbeat, movements and position monitored.

  • Discuss signs of labour and induction of labour (in case of complications or your baby being overdue).

Additional tests you may need:

  • Group B Streptococcus (GBS) test – this third trimester test usually takes place between weeks 36 and 38. It involves taking a swab of your vagina and anus to test for GBS – a type of bacteria that’s harmless to you, but may require antibiotics so it doesn’t affect your baby during birth.

  • Biophysical profile test – this prenatal test combines an ultrasound and foetal heart rate monitoring (also called a nonstress test) to build information about how your baby is doing. It measures muscle tone, heart rate, breathing, movements, and amniotic fluid level. If your doctor notices anything unusual, some follow-up tests may be done.

A breakdown of prenatal tests and screenings by trimester

If that was all too much to digest, here it is broken down into what tests happen in each trimester.

(or, click here to skip this section)

First trimester scans and tests

  • Pregnancy Test – a urine or blood test, usually performed at your initial pregnancy checkup with your GP.

  • First Trimester Genetic Testing
    • Combined First Trimester Screening Test – non-invasive prenatal screening that includes a blood test performed between weeks 10 and 12, and an ultrasound between weeks 11 and 13.
    • Non-invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) – a special (and expensive) blood test that can be taken after 10 weeks.
    • Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) – a diagnostic test offered at 11 to 12 weeks that involves taking a placenta sample for analysis. Some genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis can be determined from this, and statistically, 1 per cent of women will miscarry as a result of the test.
    • Nuchal Translucency (NT) Screening – a screening test involving your doctor measuring the fluid at the back of your baby’s neck.

  • First Trimester Ultrasounds – you’ll have at least one at around 12-13 weeks.

Second trimester scans and tests

  • Second Trimester Genetic Testing
    • Maternal Serum Screening/Quad Test – a blood test.
    • Amniocentesis – a procedure that involves taking a sample of your amniotic fluid. Statistically, 0.5 per cent of women will miscarry from the test.

  • Glucose Screening – a blood test to screen for gestational diabetes.

  • Second Trimester Ultrasounds – you’ll have at least one ultrasound around week 20.

Third trimester scans and tests

  • Group B Strep Test – a swab test that confirms if you have GBS bacteria, requiring antibiotics ahead of your birth.

  • Biophysical Profile Test – a non-invasive ultrasound and foetal heart rate monitoring test to check that your later-term baby is A-OK.

How to prep for your prenatal screening appointments

First and foremost, bring snacks

I cannot stress the importance of snacks enough. If your doctor is gonna keep you waiting, you don’t want to get hangry (hunger-anger is highly elevated during pregnancy).

Get a folder for your pregnancy sh*t

You WILL collect many information pamphlets, pathology forms, referral letters, test results and more. Do yourself a favour and keep them organised. Don’t lose them. You need some of those. 

Your hospital or care provider may even supply a pregnancy book in which to store your bits and pieces. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong spending a few bucks at Officeworks to get one.

Write down your questions

Pregnancy is a strange, confusing time. Questions will pop into your head incessantly – but more often than not, you’ll draw a blank when the obstetrician is sitting across from you asking if you have any questions. Be smart and write your questions down in a notebook, or your phone. That way, you can whip out your list and get those queries answered during your appointments.

Speaking of questions – don’t feel like there are too many questions you can ask. Particularly when your doctor is recommending prenatal testing, grill them on what’s involved so you really understand what it all means.

Know your rights

You don’t NEED to have every prenatal test done. It’s important to listen to the advice of your healthcare providers, but know you can always opt-out of something if you’re not comfortable with it.

Also, you have a right to your test results. You can call up and request them if they’re not provided to you.

Bring a pal

All of the information that gets thrown at you during antenatal appointments can be so overwhelming. It’s tough for a foggy pregnancy brain to absorb. It may help to bring your partner or a support person along to your appointments with you for emotional support (and to remember things for you). 

My husband couldn’t be there for many appointments, but my mum was a good sub. Plus, she often bought me coffee and cake afterwards. (Get yourself a Carolyn.)

The plus side to all these pregnancy appointments

Keeping on top of your pregnancy admin is a mammoth-sized task. And often you’re dealing with all this along with icky pregnancy symptoms, your snarky boss wondering why you’re never at your desk, and scrambling to prepare your house and life for the incoming family member you’re about to meet.

But here’s the thing to remember: 

There’s no better time to slow down and focus on your health than right now. Being pregnant is stressful and not too glamorous a lot of the time, but it’s the one time in your life that you can truly justify going to your healthcare appointments, booking yourself a massage or two, and really focusing on yourself. It’s not even selfish, because it’s for the benefit of your unborn child!

So with that in mind, you may not feel so cranky and rushed when your obstetrician leaves you in the waiting room for an hour longer than expected. This is your time to sit, think, and fantasise about your life as a mama.

Soak. It. All. In. 

And if you need something to keep you entertained while you’re waiting, check out our top podcast recommendations to help you prep for motherhood. Oh, and have a scroll through Mumli, of course.

The Raising Children Network, Appointments during pregnancy

The Raising Children Network, Tests in pregnancy

Better Health Channel, Pregnancy testing

Better Health Channel, Pregnancy – prenatal tests

The Raising Children Network, Antenatal tests: chromosomal anomalies and other conditions

The Royal Women’s Hospital, Genetic testing in pregnancy

Barwon Health, Schedule of visits

Mayo Clinic, Rh factor blood test

Mayo Clinic, Quad screen

Mayo Clinic, Biophysical profile

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