When pregnant women think of prenatal testing, they may envision an invasive procedure that carries a risk to both mother and baby.

However, new advances in women’s health technology mean prenatal screening has advanced rapidly, especially when it comes to non-invasive prenatal tests (NIPT), which can determine abnormalities in fetal DNA by analyzing a blood sample drawn from the mother.

If the test comes back low-risk, women no longer have to risk the invasive amniocentesis, which requires extracting amniotic fluid in the sac surrounding the fetus and can cause miscarriage in an estimated 0.5 to 1 percent of pregnancies.

“When amniocentesis was the first line of detection, the risk caused some women to opt out of screening,” says France Lagacé, the Diagnostic Laboratory Manager at Procrea Fertility’s Montreal location.

As the average age of motherhood continues to climb, so does the risk of genetic conditions. This risk spikes after age 35, though non-invasive prenatal tests are available to pregnant women of any age. With less invasive tests, more families can learn about the health of their baby, and sooner. A doctor, midwife, or health care provider can provide the referral.

“The testing allows a couple to have counselling, to make decisions, and to prepare themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Melissa Gentile, a Practice Liaison at Procrea Fertility.

Fetal DNA tests have been available for a decade, though a test known as NIFTY — or non-invasive fetal trisomy — is the only one in Canada that tests all 23 pairs of chromosomes with such accuracy.

NIFTY measures the risk for trisomies 21, 18, and 13 with over 99 percent accuracy. Women can visit a lab such as Procrea or one of its cross-Canada affiliates, provide a blood sample, and wait for results available in around 10 business days.

Since February 2013, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (SOGC) recommends that all high-risk women be offered fetal DNA testing prior to amniocentesis. The SOGC released new guidelines in September recommending all pregnant women be offered a first-trimester ultrasound and prenatal screening test for common chromosomal abnormalities.

In addition to NIFTY, Procrea’s labs also conduct other diagnostic tests familiar to many women, including SENTIS, which detects the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutation frequently associated with the predisposition of breast and ovarian cancers.