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Oct 12, 2022 03:57 PM EDT

Why Taking a DNA Test is Vital Before Starting a Family

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Man Looking at the Microscope with Woman Assistant

(Photo : Gustavo Fring)

If you're considering starting a family, this is an exciting time! There are no doubt a million things running through your head right now, from thoughts of managing pregnancy to how you'll decorate the nursery and sort out work and finances - not to mention all the shopping for cute baby clothes you'll need to do!

However, one thing that can get missed when thinking about starting a family is the potential importance of taking a DNA test before trying to conceive. There are many good reasons for arranging for you and your partner to have a DNA test as part of the journey: we discuss these below.

Identifying Hereditary Diseases

The most important reason to undertake DNA testing is to find out whether you or your partner have any hereditary conditions that could be passed on to your future child. Sometimes individuals can be carriers of a genetic disease without developing it themselves - a DNA test is vital to establish whether there is a chance that a child could be born with the same condition and just how likely, or otherwise, this is. The test can determine whether a baby could develop the genetic condition themselves or be a carrier of it.

In most cases, if just one parent is a carrier, then there is a 50% chance that the child will be a healthy carrier of the gene variant, whereas if both parents are found to be carriers, then the child will definitely be a healthy carrier.

A DNA test can help future parents make informed decisions around family planning, fully armed with all the necessary information.

Specific Reasons for Testing

If you or your partner has a close family member with an inherited illness, then DNA testing is especially important to identify potential risk factors. There are other scenarios in which getting tested should be seriously considered, too.

People from certain ethnic groups are at higher risk of developing specific genetic disorders. Your doctor may recommend that you be tested as part of the family planning process if you belong to one of these groups. 

If a woman has previously suffered several miscarriages that didn't have an identified cause, then a genetic issue could be to blame, and it's a good idea to explore this further. Similarly, if a child has been born into a previous relationship with either a congenital disability or a genetic illness, then DNA testing could be crucial.

What Diseases Can DNA Testing Identify?

Standard DNA tests screen for genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, fragile X syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, spinal muscular atrophy, and blood disorders like sickle cell disease. Expanded genetic carrier screenings can also screen for over four hundred other genetic conditions.

How Do I Take a DNA Test?

DNA tests are simple and painless. In the vast majority of cases, a sample of saliva is taken from inside the cheeks of the individual using a swab. This is then sent to a laboratory for testing.

A doctor may arrange the test for you, or you may choose to order an at-home test kit. The latter is a convenient, discreet, and affordable way to take a DNA test, and results are usually delivered within about a week of the lab receiving your sample.

What to Consider Before Testing

Deciding to start a family is a big step - while getting a DNA test may be an important part of the journey, there are also some important things to consider before going ahead with one.

Firstly, while test results are accurate in the overwhelming majority of cases, there is always a small chance that you will get an inaccurate result. Similarly, depending on the disease, there is no guaranteed way of knowing how the relevant genes will affect a future child, even if they are passed on.

If you're thinking of getting a test to determine whether you're a carrier of a genetic disease, then there are other things to bear in mind, too. How will this information affect you, for example? How could the stress affect the pregnancy if you are committed to starting a family? It's also a good idea to plan for the next steps, depending on the test results. You may want to consider speaking with a genetics counselor or with your doctor to ensure that the support you need will be on hand as part of the decision-making process.

The Takeaway

If you or your partner have a genetic condition or have a close family member who does, then DNA testing is likely to be extremely important to undertake before starting a family. If you know, or there's a possibility, that either of you could be a carrier, then, again, a test will provide you with the essential information you need.

Ultimately, deciding whether or not to undertake DNA testing is an intensely personal one, and the impact of the test and its results should be carefully considered. Having appropriate support in place is vital, so speaking with your healthcare practitioner or a specially trained genetic counselor is highly recommended as part of the process.

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