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Alpha Fetoprotein Screening: Educate Yourself On What These Tests Mean

By Helen M. Hurst DNP, RNC, APRN-CNM

Alpha Fetoprotein Screening: Educate Yourself On What These Tests Mean

Everyone knows that at the beginning of pregnancy you have blood drawn, but have you ever stopped to think about what tests are being done and what they actually mean?

Many of these early tests are used to get a baseline of where your various blood serum levels are. For example, checking your hematocrit and hemoglobin tells your provider whether you are anemic, as well as your blood type and whether you are Rh positive or negative. This latter information can become very important later in your pregnancy.

It’s good to be informed about your healthcare and understand what tests you are having and what the results may mean for you and your baby.

MSAFP: maternal serum alpha fetoprotein (MSAFP) testing
In the second trimester, you may be offered a test to determine if your baby is at risk with being born with a neural tube birth defect. This blood test measures your maternal serum alpha fetoprotein (MSAFP).

It’s usually offered to moms at 16 to 18 weeks gestation. A neural tube defect is an abnormality of the closure of the neural tube of the spine that happens in the early development of the baby. Down’s syndrome can also be indicated by a low MSAFP. If the MSAFP is abnormal you can pursue further screening to get a definitive diagnosis, which would include a comprehensive ultrasound and testing of the amniotic fluid through a procedure called amniocentesis.

Questions to ask yourself
In considering whether you want to undergo this screening test, ask yourself what you really want to know from the results, such as:

  • What will I do with the results of this test?
  • Am I willing to have an amniocentesis if the MSAFP is abnormal? Particularly since this is a small miscarriage risk with amniocentesis?
  • Do I want to know in advance if my baby has a problem?
  • Will knowing if my baby has a problem change my decisions about the pregnancy?

Coming to an answer just right for you
Your healthcare provider is more than willing to help you work through these questions and explain what the various options and risks are to you when it comes to your choices.

Some moms say that they would rather not know about any problems the baby may have while others say they would like to be prepared. Whatever your thoughts it is a very personal decision that you should discuss with your partner and healthcare provider. This is a situation where truly the only “right” answer is the one you’re most comfortable with and only you can answer this question for you and your baby.

Helen M. Hurst, DNP, RNC, APRN-CNM, is an assistant professor and the LGMC/BORSF Endowed Professor in Nursing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is an expert advisory to Health4Mom.org and Healthy Mom & Baby magazine.


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