Few parents have to face the prospect of their baby being born with serious birth defects. But for babies with any of about a dozen specific disorders, treatment before birth can improve their health. While prenatal surgery is the most dramatic example of how the new field of fetal medicine is saving babies, many more children have been helped by other less risky procedures. Find out how these measures could save your child.
If you're considered at risk for delivering prematurely, your doctor may recommend prenatal injections of drugs, called corticosteroids, aimed at speeding the development of your baby's lungs and other organs. Risk factors for early labor include preeclampsia, diabetes, or third-trimester bleeding. Since 1994, the use of corticosteroids has reduced preemie infant deaths by about 30 percent and has cut the rates of two serious complications: respiratory distress syndrome (by 50 percent) and bleeding in the brain (by 70 percent).
A less common problem, abnormal fetal heart rhythm, can also be corrected with prenatal medicine. Your doctor can diagnose a heart arrhythmia only 10 to 12 weeks into pregnancy by listening to your baby's heart and then following up with more detailed ultrasounds. To treat it, medicine is either given to the mother or delivered directly into the fetus's bloodstream via a technique called cordocentesis. Guided by ultrasound, the doctor inserts a thin needle through the mother's abdomen and into a tiny blood vessel in the umbilical cord, then injects the drug.