Pregnant women are no strangers to diagnostic testing. Doctors can order arrays of tests at a time, from urinalysis to checking immunity to the German measles, checking for sexually transmitted diseases to blood typing and blood glucose levels. These diagnostic tests remain an important tool for catching potentially dangerous issues early, but they can understandably seem overwhelming at times.

While many pregnant women might say they’re almost too familiar with all the regular testing, a doctor’s order for an amniocentesis might be less familiar ground.

If your doctor recommends an amniocentesis during your pregnancy then you may be wondering why, or if you should be worried. Unfortunately, rumors and fears abound about this simple procedure, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with conflicting information.

What is an amniocentesis?

In basic terms, it’s a simple fluid collection procedure that involves a very thin needle. The needle is passed through the skin of the abdomen (but not in the belly button), through the uterine wall, and into the amniotic fluid sac (but not into the fetus). A small sample of the fluid (the baby’s bath water) is drawn and the needle is removed.

The amniotic fluid has some of the baby’s skin cells suspended in it, and those cells are cultured and viewed under a microscope. As the cells divide, the technician and physician can examine all the chromosomes and bands present in order to diagnose chromosomal abnormalities.

Why might I need an amniocentesis?

Your obstetrician or specialist might recommend an amniocentesis if there is a possibility of genetic or chromosomal problems (such as Down syndrome) in a developing fetus. While this reason may sound alarming, needing the test doesn’t necessarily mean there is actually a problem. Most (>90%) amniocentesis procedure results show no abnormality, so there’s no urgent reason to panic if one is recommended for you.

Of course, only your doctor will be fully familiar with your case. Always consult your doctor’s office if you have any questions regarding your care.

Is amniocentesis dangerous?

While any procedure involving a needle can leave some patients leery, amniocentesis is not remarkably dangerous. The stated national average for experiencing a complication from amniocentesis and losing the baby as a result is about 1 in 300. It’s important to consider that these statistics include all procedures done by any sort of doctor, ranging wildly in skill and experience. While a Radiologist or Family Practice doctor might only perform a handful of procedures per year, a Maternal-Fetal and Genetics specialist might perform closer to several per day and hundreds per year.

In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine found that greater experience generally means greater safety. Very experienced doctors who performed more than 100 per year had the lowest complication rate of 1 in 900 – roughly three times safer than the national average!

While amniocentesis is somewhat invasive compared to other tests, it’s still the gold standard for diagnosing genetic and chromosomal problems. When performed by the right hands, the risks are exceptionally low. If there’s any possibility for genetic and chromosomal problems then an early diagnosis can help you prepare.

Always speak with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. No pregnancy is perfect, but I hope your pregnancy is the very best it can be.

If you’re interested in learning more about my practice, you can read more here. If you would like to make an appointment with me, you can contact Austin Perinatal Associates here.

Be safe, be well and have fun!

David L. Berry, M.D.
Founder and Staff Physician
Austin Perinatal Associates