The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends offering the option of screening tests and diagnostic tests for Down syndrome to all pregnant women, regardless of age.
- Screening tests can indicate the likelihood or chances that a mother is carrying a baby with Down syndrome. But these tests can't tell for sure or diagnose whether the baby has Down syndrome.
- Diagnostic tests can identify or diagnose whether your baby has Down syndrome.
Your health care provider can discuss the types of tests, advantages and disadvantages, benefits and risks, and the meaning of your results. If appropriate, your provider may recommend that you talk to a genetics counselor.
Screening tests during pregnancy
Screening for Down syndrome is offered as a routine part of prenatal care. Although screening tests can only identify your risk of carrying a baby with Down syndrome, they can help you make decisions about more-specific diagnostic tests.
Screening tests include the first trimester combined test and the integrated screening test.
The first trimester combined test
The first trimester combined test, which is done in two steps, includes:
- Blood test. This blood test measures the levels of pregnancy-associated plasma protein-A (PAPP-A) and the pregnancy hormone known as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). Abnormal levels of PAPP-A and HCG may indicate a problem with the baby.
- Nuchal translucency test. During this test, an ultrasound is used to measure a specific area on the back of your baby's neck. This is known as a nuchal translucency screening test. When abnormalities are present, more fluid than usual tends to collect in this neck tissue.
Using your age and the results of the blood test and the ultrasound, your doctor or genetic counselor can estimate your risk of having a baby with Down syndrome.
Integrated screening test
The integrated screening test is done in two parts during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. The results are combined to estimate the risk that your baby has Down syndrome.
- First trimester. Part one includes a blood test to measure PAPP-A and an ultrasound to measure nuchal translucency.
- Second trimester. The quad screen measures your blood level of four pregnancy-associated substances: alpha fetoprotein, estriol, HCG and inhibin A.
Diagnostic tests during pregnancy
If your screening test results are positive or worrisome, or you're at high risk of having a baby with Down syndrome, you might consider more testing to confirm the diagnosis. Your health care provider can help you weigh the pros and cons of these tests.
Diagnostic tests that can identify Down syndrome include:
- Chorionic villus sampling (CVS). In CVS, cells are taken from the placenta and used to analyze the fetal chromosomes. This test is typically performed in the first trimester, between 10 and 13 weeks of pregnancy. The risk of pregnancy loss (miscarriage) from a CVS is very low.
- Amniocentesis. A sample of the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus is withdrawn through a needle inserted into the mother's uterus. This sample is then used to analyze the chromosomes of the fetus. Doctors usually perform this test in the second trimester, after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This test also carries a very low risk of miscarriage.
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is an option for couples undergoing in vitro fertilization who are at increased risk of passing along certain genetic conditions. The embryo is tested for genetic abnormalities before it's implanted in the womb.
Diagnostic tests for newborns
After birth, the initial diagnosis of Down syndrome is often based on the baby's appearance. But the features associated with Down syndrome can be found in babies without Down syndrome, so your health care provider will likely order a test called a chromosomal karyotype to confirm diagnosis. Using a sample of blood, this test analyzes your child's chromosomes. If there's an extra chromosome 21 in all or some cells, the diagnosis is Down syndrome.
Early intervention for infants and children with Down syndrome can make a major difference in improving their quality of life. Because each child with Down syndrome is unique, treatment will depend on individual needs. Also, different stages of life may require different services.
If your child has Down syndrome, you'll likely rely on a team of specialists that can provide medical care and help him or her develop skills as fully as possible. Depending on your child's particular needs, your team may include some of these experts:
- Primary care pediatrician to coordinate and provide routine childhood care
- Pediatric cardiologist
- Pediatric gastroenterologist
- Pediatric endocrinologist
- Developmental pediatrician
- Pediatric neurologist
- Pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist
- Pediatric eye doctor (ophthalmologist)
- Speech pathologist
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
You'll need to make important decisions about your child's treatment and education. Build a team of health care providers, teachers and therapists you trust. These professionals can help evaluate the resources in your area and explain state and federal programs for children and adults with disabilities.
Coping and support
When you learn your child has Down syndrome, you may experience a range of emotions, including anger, fear, worry and sorrow. You may not know what to expect, and you may worry about your ability to care for a child with a disability. The best antidote for fear and worry is information and support.
Consider these steps to prepare yourself and to care for your child:
- Ask your health care provider about early intervention programs in your area. Available in most states, these special programs offer infants and young children with Down syndrome stimulation at an early age (typically until age 3) to help develop motor, language, social and self-help skills.
- Learn about educational options for school. Depending on your child's needs, that may mean attending regular classes (mainstreaming), special education classes or both. With your health care team's recommendations, work with the school to understand and choose appropriate options.
- Seek out other families who are dealing with the same issues. Most communities have support groups for parents of children with Down syndrome. You can also find internet support groups. Family and friends can also be a source of understanding and support.
- Participate in social and leisure activities. Take time for family outings and look in your community for social activities such as park district programs, sports teams or ballet classes. Although some adaptations may be required, children and adults with Down syndrome can enjoy social and leisure activities.
- Encourage independence. Your child's abilities may be different from other children's abilities, but with your support and some practice your child may be able to perform tasks such as packing lunch, managing hygiene and dressing, and doing light cooking and laundry.
- Prepare for the transition to adulthood. Opportunities for living, working, and social and leisure activities can be explored before your child leaves school. Community living or group homes, and community employment, day programs or workshops after high school require some advance planning. Ask about opportunities and support in your area.
Expect a bright future. Most people with Down syndrome live with their families or independently, go to mainstream schools, read and write, participate in the community, and have jobs. People with Down syndrome can live fulfilling lives.