The trend towards having children later in life is growing and one in four women giving birth at Mediclinic is over 35. But NIPT testing can inform them about their baby’s health early in pregnancy.

“More and more women are choosing to delay pregnancy. They’re choosing to first pursue education and careers and become financially independent before starting a family,” says Dr Liani Smit, a medical doctor specialising in genetics who is part of the multidisciplinary team at Mediclinic Precise. “And I’m one of them; I had my first baby at 37.”

Increased risk in older women

While society may be increasingly accepting of women giving birth to babies later in life, medically speaking, pregnancies statistically become higher risk with age. “I was also of ‘advanced maternal age’, says Dr Smit. “Although I didn’t like this term, I understood the medical reasoning behind it.” She explains that the risk for a baby being born with a chromosomal genetic condition, such as Down syndrome, is higher when the mother is older. Although a woman of any age can have a baby with Down syndrome, the risk increases dramatically with age, as statistics show:

  • In a woman giving birth aged 40, the risk is ±1 in 100
  • In a woman giving birth aged 25, the risk drops to 1 in 1 200.

Older moms are also more at risk of pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia, blood pressure problems and gestational diabetes, and may take longer to fall pregnant in the first place. There’s also a greater risk for caesarean section, low birth weight and preterm labour, says Dr Smit.

Of course, she adds, these are risk factors and not a given. “Remember that for most pregnancies, even where women are slightly older, both mom and baby will still be entirely healthy. However, a gynaecologist may do further health checks to ensure the healthiest pregnancy journey possible for both mother and baby.”

NIPT revolutionises prenatal screening

One of the new screening tests available to expectant mothers is non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT). It’s a genetic test that analyses an unborn baby’s DNA to check for several chromosomal conditions, including Down syndrome.

“NIPT is amazing in that it can be done early in pregnancy – as early as nine weeks – and you get the results within two weeks,” explains Dr Smit, who is part of the team that helped develop and roll out Mediclinic’s NIPT testing.

NIPT is available to all expectant mothers, but it’s especially useful for older mothers. “I chose to have NIPT testing early in my pregnancy, to have as much information as possible about my baby’s genetic health,” she says. “Fortunately, my pregnancy was overall healthy and low risk, with extra check-ups put in place by my gynaecologist.”

Another advantage of NIPT Is that it only requires a simple blood test for the mother, unlike amniocentesis, during which a hollow needle is inserted into the uterus. “So, NIPT offers you the opportunity to have a very early and very safe test that can give you reassurance further on in your pregnancy,” says Dr Smit.

Accurate results

Mediclinic’s NIPT offering is particularly accurate. “The Panorama NIPT uses a unique, next-generation SNP-based method,” explains Dr Smit. “SNPs [pronounced ‘snips’] are the 1% of our DNA that makes us as individuals unique from each other.”

This allows the team to differentiate the mother’s DNA from that of the unborn baby, and even between the DNA of twins. “It can determine if the twins are identical or not, the genetic sex of each twin, and the risk for genetic conditions in each twin.

However, NIPT still has some limitations. “NIPT cannot detect all possible genetic conditions,” cautions Dr Smit. If you have a genetic condition in your family, she recommends asking whether it is detectable with NIPT.

“NIPT is also considered a screening test, which means that although it’s highly accurate, confirmation of high-risk results is required using another method, like amniocentesis, before any decisions about further management of the pregnancy are made.”

If you’re planning to fall pregnant, speak to your Mediclinic gynaecologist about NIPT screening.