When should I start prenatal care?

It’s a common question from women facing unplanned pregnancies. After all, if you’re in this situation, becoming pregnant may not have been on your radar — let alone thoughts about the commitment of a regular prenatal care visit schedule. But, upon discovering your pregnancy, this may be just one of the many questions buzzing around in your head.

Prenatal care is important, and it’s important that you receive it throughout your pregnancy. It’s normal to be overwhelmed by this aspect of your unplanned pregnancy, which is why we’ve created a guide for your prenatal care calendar below.

Remember, if you are ever in doubt about any aspect of your pregnancy, please reach out to a local medical professional.

When to Start Prenatal Care

The true answer? As early as possible.

Pregnancy is a complicated medical condition. It has the potential to come with many risks and complications, and it is not something to be taken lightly. Ideally, a woman who intends to carry her pregnancy to term should start receiving prenatal care as soon as she discovers she is pregnant. That way, she can receive the full benefits of a routine prenatal care schedule to keep herself and her child healthy.

However, when you’re not expecting to become pregnant, it’s common to explain away your symptoms of pregnancy until a few weeks or even months after you conceive. You may even spend more time after discovering your pregnancy to think about whether or not you really wish to carry it to term. All of these factors can cause your prenatal care schedule to be delayed. There’s no need to feel guilty about this; obstetricians have seen it all.

Your Prenatal Care Schedule

Now that you know the answer to the question, “When should a mother start prenatal care?” it’s time to answer the next question: “What does a routine prenatal care schedule look like?”

First, remember this: Every pregnancy is unique, which means every woman’s prenatal care timeline will be a bit different. However, there are some general things you can expect from your prenatal care as you move through your different trimesters of pregnancy.

Prenatal Care: First Trimester

When you first find out you are pregnant, you may be far along in your first trimester and barely even feeling the effects of your pregnancy. However, this doesn’t make prenatal care in the first trimester any less important.

Your first prenatal care visit should be as soon as you discover you are pregnant. For many women, that happens to be during their first trimester (although if you don’t discover your pregnancy until later on, you can schedule your first prenatal care appointment then, too). Your medical professional will confirm your pregnancy with a blood test and then talk to you in length about your personal medical history, your risk factors for pregnancy, your plans and expectations for your pregnancy and more. In short, this first visit will be the first time that you talk to a doctor about your pregnancy — so don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need!

During your first trimester prenatal care, your doctor will also determine your due date (when you will be 40 weeks pregnant, not necessarily when you are expected to deliver). Your doctor may also screen for fetal abnormalities and other early-pregnancy conditions and complete physical exams. During your prenatal care in your first trimester, you might also be able to hear your baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

If you have received no prenatal care in your first trimester, don’t panic: You and your baby still have a chance at a healthy pregnancy. You’re not alone either; prenatal care first trimester statistics show that, in 2016, only 77.1 percent of women who gave birth had initiated prenatal care during their first trimesters.

Prenatal Care: Second Trimester

Whether you start your prenatal care schedule in your first or second trimester, the goal will be the same: to ensure the birth of a healthy baby with minimal risk to you. During your first and second trimester, your prenatal care calendar will involve visits every two to four weeks, depending on your personal medical situation. If you have few risk factors or a history of uncomplicated pregnancies, you may even be seen less frequently.

During your second trimester, your doctor will continue to monitor you and your baby’s health to ensure everything is proceeding normally. They will track your baby’s growth, listen to your baby’s heartbeat (if they haven’t already) and maybe complete your first ultrasound to actually see your baby. You may also be able to find out your baby’s sex during this ultrasound, too!

Your doctor will likely continue testing to ensure your baby is developing normally and your body is reacting well to your pregnancy. As with your other prenatal visits, be vocal about any questions or concerns you may have at this point.

Remember: It’s never too late to start receiving prenatal care. Even if you have received no prenatal care until 20 weeks, 25 weeks or later, taking the steps to meet with an experienced obstetrician as soon as possible will play a huge role in keeping you and your baby safe.

Prenatal Care: Third Trimester

Your prenatal care in your third trimester will be more frequent than earlier in your pregnancy. After all, you are so much closer to meeting your baby! Typically, your third trimester prenatal care schedule will include a check-up every two weeks until you are 36 weeks along and then weekly visits until you deliver.

Your doctor will continue the monitoring they have done through your first two trimesters (if you received prenatal care then). They will ask how you are feeling, ask about your baby’s movements, and often complete a physical exam. This exam will estimate how large your baby is and can often determine whether your baby is in a head-down or breech (bottom down) position. If it is the latter, your practitioner may take steps to turn your baby, if necessary.

Your doctor will also provide pregnancy counseling to help you prepare for your upcoming labor and delivery process. You will find out what changes are normal in the weeks to come and what the signs of labor are. During your third trimester prenatal care calendar, you will also learn about what to expect during your postpartum recovery.

Remember: If you have received no prenatal care in your third trimester — whether you’re 30 weeks pregnant with no prenatal care or 7 months pregnant with no prenatal care — it’s critical that you start receiving your care as soon as possible to prepare for your upcoming delivery.

Starting Prenatal Care Late?

If you’re worried about obtaining late prenatal care for your baby, you are not the only one. Despite the commonly accepted benefits of prenatal care, many women in the United States lack the opportunity to obtain proper prenatal care from the start of their pregnancy. Whether you are starting prenatal care late because of your location, your financial situation or simply because you didn’t know you were pregnant, remember this: Late is always better than never.

No medical professional should shame you for obtaining late prenatal care. They should always respect your situation as an expectant mother and help you obtain the support you need for the rest of your pregnancy, however long that will be. If your chosen medical professional makes you feel uncomfortable or guilty about starting prenatal care late, please consider finding another professional who will support you the way you deserve to be during this stressful time in your life.

If you are starting your prenatal care later in your pregnancy, your doctor will likely ask you some basic questions about the length of your pregnancy, your lifestyle and your pregnancy experience up until now. Then, they will be able to create a prenatal care calendar to maximize your medical attention in the remaining weeks or months of your pregnancy.

If you are looking to obtain late prenatal care but cannot afford it, you can always consider placing your child for adoption with a family who is better prepared to offer the opportunities you may not be able to. When you pursue adoption, your prenatal care services will always be free to you.

Want more information about your prenatal care schedule? Please contact a local obstetrician for advice on safely moving forward with your pregnancy care.