Pregnancy Awareness Week: What you should know about non-invasive prenatal testing

Having a clear understanding of these risks early in pregnancy can help expecting mothers make informed decisions with their antenatal healthcare. Picture: Mart Productions/Pexels

Having a clear understanding of these risks early in pregnancy can help expecting mothers make informed decisions with their antenatal healthcare. Picture: Mart Productions/Pexels

Published Feb 15, 2024


As more women choose to wait before starting a family, there are various factors influencing this decision. Some may choose to prioritise their career or aim to secure their finances before having children.

It's commonly known that getting pregnant becomes more challenging as women age, and there are increased health risks for both the mother and the baby. However, these concerns are not absolute, and many can be managed effectively.

In South Africa, the average age for first-time mothers ranges from 14 to 29 but, globally, this has shifted to 30 and above, reflecting women's choices to pursue education and career opportunities before having children.

While medical advancements allow women to have children well into their 40s. The public often hears inspiring stories of celebrity older moms, the likes of Janet Jackson and Halle Berry, without learning about the challenges, miscarriages and age-related complications that can occur.

Choosing to have a baby after the age of 30 offers several advantages. Picture: MART PRODUCTION /Pexels

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows a global trend of delayed motherhood, with the average age of first-time mothers increasing to 30 and beyond in many countries.

This trend highlights the need for more comprehensive awareness campaigns to educate individuals about the benefits and potential risks associated with later-life pregnancies.

The late baby boom: pros and cons

Choosing to have a baby after the age of 30 offers several advantages, including increased financial stability, more established support systems, better preparedness, and greater emotional maturity.

However, there are risks involved for both the mother and baby that women should be aware of, but most of them can be managed through early detection and medical intervention.

Dr Liani Smit, a medical geneticist at Mediclinic Precise, highlights the importance of understanding these risks, this Pregnancy Awareness Week, observed from February 10 -16.

She noted: “Chromosomal abnormalities are common and can occur in up to 1 in 150 live births. The risk for certain chromosomal conditions, such as Down syndrome, increases with maternal age.”

“However, these conditions can occur in any pregnancy, potentially impacting a baby’s health and development, and in some cases, life expectancy.”

Having a clear understanding of these risks early in pregnancy can help expecting mothers make informed decisions with their antenatal healthcare practitioner, ensuring the best possible outcomes for both mother and baby.

This knowledge can offer reassurance and guide the management of the pregnancy for the optimal benefit of both the mother and child, said Smit.

The role of prenatal testing in advanced maternal age

Prenatal testing is a valuable tool used during pregnancy to assess the health and development of the foetus. It can provide important information about the baby's genetic makeup and help detect potential medical issues.

Prenatal testing can also assist in identifying any concerns that may require medical intervention or special care after the baby is born.

For women of advanced maternal age, prenatal testing can be particularly beneficial as it allows for the early detection of chromosomal abnormalities and other potential health issues that are more common in pregnancies later in life.

This knowledge can help expecting parents make informed decisions about their pregnancy and develop a plan for the baby's care, as well as seek support from healthcare professionals as needed.

However, it's important to be aware of the risks associated with prenatal testing. These tests, such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, do carry a small risk of miscarriage or other complications.

In a move to offer South African mothers a greater sense of reassurance, Mediclinic introduced its system of safe, non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) for expectant mothers last year, as part of their DNA-based diagnostic and clinical interpretation services, according to Smit.

She shed light on the features of the Mediclinic Precise Panorama NIPT, explaining that it screens for common chromosomal conditions in the foetus, including Down syndrome, Patau syndrome, Edwards syndrome, sex chromosome aneuploidies, and even offers optional screening for up to five microdeletion syndromes that may be overlooked during routine prenatal screening.

In what can already be a stressful journey for parents-to-be, particularly for those who are experiencing pregnancy at an older age, Smit underscores the safety and precision of NIPT.

NIPT is based on a simple blood test from the pregnant woman, which examines the genetic profile of the foetus (or multiple foetuses) to understand the risks for specific genetic conditions from as early as nine weeks into pregnancy, Smit explained.

According to Dr Lindsay Petersen, General Manager of Mediclinic Precise, the Panorama NIPT utilises advanced technology to analyse cell-free DNA fragments in the mother's bloodstream and can distinguish between maternal and foetal DNA fragments.

This approach allows for more precise assessments and is particularly beneficial for twin pregnancies.

Petersen also said that the Panorama NIPT is the only offering on the market with this capability and can also detect rare genetic conditions that other NIPTs cannot, such as triploidy, a condition where a foetus has a complete extra set of chromosomes.

In collaboration with the patient’s doctor, who will complete a requisition form on behalf of the patient, Mediclinic Precise provides the consulting doctor with expert guidance on the patient’s unique genetic report.

“The doctor will then relay the information, including any risk factors that the mother needs to be aware of. This information enables both you and your doctor to make informed decisions about your pregnancy, prepare for your baby’s arrival, and take early interventions to optimize their care,” Petersen shared.

Ultimately, the decision to undergo prenatal testing is a deeply personal one.

It is an important decision, and expecting parents should carefully weigh the benefits and risks of early detection.