Doctors recommend that pregnant women receive 10 to 13 prenatal checkups to help ensure that their babies are born healthy.
The first doctor's visit--which should take place within 14 weeks of conception--is critical because at this early point, common problems of hypertension, diabetes, anemia and infections can be detected in the mother and successfully treated. Tests can also be done early on to discover spinal cord, brain and genetic abnormalities in the fetus.
High-risk women can be targeted for intense medical attention or referred to social programs providing nutritional, psychological and financial support.
Three-quarters of the health risks associated with low birth weight can be evaluated in the first prenatal visits, and intervention can reduce the risks, medical experts say.
"Some people think that prenatal care is magic. It's not," said Dr. Xylina Bean at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Watts. "The important thing is that there are a lot of problems that have very serious consequences for the fetus and can be treated quite easily if we find out about them early enough."
Prenatal care should not only begin early but continue throughout the pregnancy.
In the last trimester, a woman should be seen every other week and, finally, once a week during the last month to guard against premature birth.