In addition to all the fun stuff that goes along with being a mom-to-be, like picking out a name and the perfect paint color for baby's nursery, make sure you’ve set up a prenatal appointment schedule. Regular visits to an OB/GYN, midwife or family doctor trained in obstetrics ensure that everything is as expected and they can help spot any health issues early on, when complications are easier to treat.
To help you prepare for your upcoming prenatal care visits, here’s a look at when these appointments are usually set up and what happens at each one as well as a list of the kinds of tests you’ll typically be given. Be sure each appointment is on your calendar and try not to skip a single one (they’re all important!).
And keep in mind that you don’t have to attend these appointments alone. Your partner, a friend or family member is welcome to join you for support, to ask questions and share concerns with the health care provider.
Typical prenatal appointment schedule
The number of visits you’ll have in a typical pregnancy usually total about 10 to 15, depending on when you find out you're expecting and the timing of your first checkup. In most complication-free pregnancies, you can expect to have a prenatal appointment with the following frequency:
- Weeks 4 to 28: Once a month
- Weeks 28 to 36: Every other week
- Week 36 until birth: Every week
The frequency of prenatal appointments increases in the third trimester because certain pregnancy complications like preeclampsia are more likely to appear then. Issues with your baby's growth also tend to show up later in pregnancy, so your practitioner will also want to measure your weight, belly size and other factors more frequently in the last trimester.
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If you’ve had complications with past pregnancies, such as giving birth too early or late, you may see your practitioner more often. You’ll also have more prenatal visits on your schedule if your pregnancy is considered high-risk, which means it involves any of the following:
- Older than 35
- Overweight, obese or underweight
- Health issues before pregnancy, such as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure or HIV
- Pregnant with twins, triplets or other multiples
What happens during a prenatal care appointment?
You can expect a number of prenatal tests throughout your pregnancy, depending on how far along you are. At nearly every prenatal appointment, your practitioner will also do the following:
- Check your blood pressure.
- Weigh you. You’ll step on the scale so the doctor can make sure you and your baby are growing well. Your health care provider will assess the size of your uterus, either vaginally or via an ultrasound. When you’re bigger, during the second and third trimesters, she’ll measure your abdomen and feel for the baby's size and position.
- Take a urine sample. You’ll be asked to pee in a cup so the doctor can check for too much protein (a sign of preeclampsia) or sugar (a sign of gestational diabetes).
- Note any swelling in your hands, feet or face. Swelling in these spots is called edema, which is extra fluid trapped in the body’s tissues and may be a sign of preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy.
- Listen to fetal cardiac activity. About 12 to 14 weeks into your pregnancy, your practitioner may take out the Doppler monitor, which bounces sound waves off your baby’s tiny ticker, allowing you to hear that sweet thumping sound. After 20 weeks, your baby's heartbeat may also be audible through a stethoscope.
- Discuss testing options. Your provider will advise you about any recommended tests — such as ultrasounds, amniocentesis (to check for chromosomal abnormalities and fetal infections) and screening for genetic issues — as well as the risks and benefits of each.
- Offer info and guidance. Your practitioner will fill you in on any recent or upcoming changes in your body or baby, answer your questions and offer you tips to help you stay healthy and happy until delivery day.
What tests will I receive at my prenatal appointments?
Many different lab tests are part of routine medical care during pregnancy, including those that are measured with a blood, urine or tissue sample. Each test you get will vary according to your risk for certain conditions and may include:
- Pelvic exams
- Breast exams
- Pap smear
- Ultrasounds and Doppler scans. Between 18 and 20 weeks, your practitioner will probably order an ultrasound to confirm how far along you are and to check that your baby’s spine, abdomen, heart, brain and other body parts are developing well.
- Blood tests. These check your hormone levels and screen for Rh factor (a protein on red blood cells) and anemia, among other conditions.
- Glucose screenings. These tests indicate whether you’ve developed gestational diabetes.
- Nuchal translucency screening. This is a non-invasive check for chromosomal disorders.
- Group B strep (GBS). This checks for a type of bacteria that’s found in 1 out of 4 women.
- Nonstress tests (NST). An NST takes place during the third trimester and measures the fetal heart rate and response to movement.
- Biophysical profile (BPP). You’ll get this test if you’ve sailed past your due date, you’re carrying multiples or have high blood pressure.
Based on your risk factors (usually your age, ethnic background or family history), your practitioner may also recommend one of several prenatal genetic tests and screenings to check for chromosomal abnormalities that cause conditions like Down syndrome.
Blood screenings may include noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) and the quad screen, both of which indicate whether your baby is at greater risk of a genetic abnormality. Your doctor may also perform chorionic villus sampling (CVS) if you're in your first trimester or amniocentesis if you're in your second trimester to diagnose genetic conditions.
Be sure to discuss your options and the risks and benefits of the various genetic tests with your practitioner early to decide if and when you should undergo them.
What will I talk about with my practitioner at prenatal care appointments?
A good portion of doctor visits during pregnancy are about advice and support. During each prenatal appointment, your practitioner should:
- Ask how you're doing physically and emotionally
- Answer all of your questions
- Offer tips on caring for yourself and your baby-to-be
- Give you a heads-up about changes to expect and red flags to look for before your next visit
As for your role in this relationship, you should strive to show up for every prenatal appointment armed with questions and details on any changes in your health. Faced with new information and tests at every visit, many moms-to-be forget what they wanted to ask or share — so write down anything you want to tell your doctor or midwife.
First trimester prenatal appointments: What to expect
Your first trimester prenatal appointment, which often takes place during the second month of pregnancy, is usually the longest one as it encompasses a full recording of your medical, gynecological and obstetrical history as well as your mental health history. Your practitioner will ask about any medications you take, any diseases you’ve been exposed to and she’ll want to know your partner’s medical details, too.
Next, you’ll have a check-up that’ll include your height, weight, blood pressure and a pelvic exam as well as confirmation of your pregnancy. A number of tests will follow, such as urine, bloodwork, genetic carrier screening, STDs, a pap smear and a blood sugar test.
Second trimester prenatal appointments: What to expect
Your visits to the doctor are on the shorter side during the second trimester, but these prenatal appointments still include a check of your weight, urine and blood pressure. Your practitioner will also keep track of your baby’s development by measuring your abdomen, listening to fetal cardiac activity and checking whether you feel any fetal movement, like belly kicks or fluttering.
Some prenatal screenings or tests may be offered now, including those for genetic or chromosomal disorders. You’ll also have fetal ultrasounds to check on the baby’s anatomy and relay the baby’s sex (if you want to know, that is!). And you’ll have a series of blood tests to check your blood count and iron level and to screen for gestational diabetes.
Third trimester prenatal appointments: What to expect
You’re in the home stretch now, so your third trimester prenatal appointments will become more frequent as you near your due date. Along with the usual weight, urine and blood pressure checks, you can expect your doctor to listen to the baby’s heartbeat and ask you about any contractions you feel or leaking fluid or bleeding you may be experiencing.
You’ll also likely be screened for GBS and your doctor may discuss vaccinations you need, like a flu shot, tetanus or Tdap. The baby’s position is also checked to determine whether he’s headfirst in the uterus, bottom-first (frank breech), feet-first (complete breech), transverse (baby is lying sideways) or oblique, which means the head is down but directed at one of your hips.
Now’s your chance to ask those last-minute questions about labor, pain management during delivery and how and when to call your doctor if you think your baby is on the way.
Questions to ask during prenatal appointments
In addition to asking about all the changes your body is going through, what to expect each month and during labor and delivery, you should also feel free to share any concerns you have with your doctor or midwife. If something hurts, itches, nags or worries you in any way, bring it up at your next appointment (or sooner if it can’t wait).
And if you’re having your baby in a hospital, don’t wait until the very end of your pregnancy to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the institution where your doctor practices. For example, some hospitals are not well-equipped to handle very premature infants, so if you’re at risk for this outcome, this type of medical facility may not be ideal.
Honesty is also critical when you’re asking and answering questions during your prenatal appointments. Don’t be reluctant to bring up any stress, depression or anxiety you’re feeling, or to admit to drug or alcohol use, as this information is vital for the doctor to know and for the healthiest outcomes for you and your child.Prenatal care visits are chock-full of tests, measurements, questions and concerns, but know that throughout the process your and your baby’s wellbeing are the main focus. Keep your schedule organized so you don’t miss any appointments and jot down anything you want to discuss with your doctor and your prenatal experience should end up being both positive and rewarding.