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pregnancy risk factors

Alternative Names
high-risk pregnancy

Pregnancy is the period from conception to birth. A pregnancy may be complicated by health problems or lifestyle issues known as risk factors. These risk factors can affect the mother or foetus, or both.

What is the information for this topic?
A pregnancy is considered to be at risk when a problem is more likely than usual to occur. Such a problem could be caused by a health condition the mother had before she was pregnant. It could also arise during pregnancy or birth.

The small number of women who have known risk factors account for a large number of the problems that occur. However, not all problems can be predicted. About 1 in 5 infants who have serious problems are born to mothers who had no known risk factors during pregnancy.

Below is a list of health problems and other risk factors that most commonly affect pregnancy.

Health problems in the mother: Obstetric concerns:
  • problems in past pregnancies
  • a mother younger than age 15 or older than age 35
  • previous birth defects
  • twins, triplets, or more foetuses
  • bleeding, especially during the second or third trimester
  • pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, or preeclampsia
  • abnormal foetal heartbeat
  • a foetus not growing enough for its age. This condition is called intrauterine growth retardation.
Lifestyle issues in the mother:
  • smoking and drinking alcohol
  • taking drugs not prescribed by a doctor
  • poor nutrition
  • lack of antenatal care
  • multiple sexual partners
To screen for risk factors, several laboratory tests are done at different times during pregnancy. Depending on the mother's medical history and family background and the results of routine tests, more tests to check the growth and health of the foetus may be suggested.

Genetic counselling is strongly advised for couples with a higher risk of having a child with a birth defect or serious genetic illness. Risk factors for this include:
  • a mother who will be 35 years old or older when the baby is due
  • a family or personal history of birth defects, genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs or Down syndrome, or certain medical disorders known as inborn errors of metabolism
  • a previous child with a birth defect or genetic disease such as sickle cell anaemia
  • certain ethnic backgrounds, including African-American, Mediterranean, Asian, French-Canadian, or Ashkenazi Jewish
  • 3 or more miscarriages in a row
Author: Dr. Karen Wolfe, MBBS, MA
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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