Rh Disease and What It Means for Your Unborn Baby
You share nearly everything with your growing baby while she is in the womb. You share your body, your oxygen, your food, and your organs take on extra workloads during pregnancy. But did you know that you don’t share blood with your baby? If a small amount of your blood and baby’s blood mixes and the two are incompatible, it can cause a lot of health problems and even death for your baby before or after birth. This blood incompatibility is called Rh disease.
Rh Disease explained
In some people, there is a protein called Rh factor found on the red blood cells. This is termed Rh-positive. If the Rh factor protein is not present, it’s called Rh-negative. The only way Rh factor is detrimental to baby’s health is if mother’s blood is Rh-negative and her baby’s blood is Rh-positive. In this case, if your baby’s blood ever mixes with your own during pregnancy, your body will begin to produce antibodies that will attack your baby’s red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they deliver oxygen throughout the body. If baby’s red blood cells are rendered ineffective (called anemia) due to mother’s antibodies, she cannot receive the oxygen she needs.
Rh factor is passed genetically, so baby’s blood type is determined by her mother’s and father’s blood type.
- An Rh-positive mother and Rh-positive father = Rh-positive child. No risk of Rh disease here.
- An Rh-negative mother and Rh-negative father = Rh-negative child. Again, no possibility of Rh disease.
- An Rh-negative mother and Rh-positive father = Possible Rh-positive child with potential for Rh disease.
During prenatal visits, your doctor will perform a blood test to detect Rh factor for both mother and baby. If your baby is at risk, close monitoring and even treatment can begin immediately.
Heath risks for babies with Rh disease
There are many ways Rh disease can be dangerous for your baby both before she’s born and after. If left untreated, Rh disease can cause:
- Jaundice – Characterized by yellow-tinted skin and eyes, jaundice happens in babies when the liver is not functioning as it should.
- Anemia – A lack of red blood cells or dysfunctional red blood cells circulating through the blood stream causes anemia. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, fast heartbeat, and shortness of breath.
- Edema – When baby’s body accumulates fluid, the chest and abdomen swell. This condition is called edema.
- Heart failure
- Brain damage
- Death – Severe Rh disease can cause stillbirth or death after birth.
Treating babies with Rh incompatibility
Rh disease can be prevented for baby if your body has not yet begun to create antibodies. Your doctor will administer a shot of RhoGAM, an Rh immunoglobulin around 28 weeks’ gestation, within 72 hours after the birth of your baby, or in any scenario where your blood and baby’s blood mix. Your doctor will most likely monitor the baby very closely via ultrasound throughout the pregnancy. Interestingly, a woman who is pregnant with her first baby usually doesn’t produce enough antibodies to cause any problems for the baby. For subsequent pregnancies, the risks are higher that the baby could develop Rh disease.
For babies with severe Rh disease, it may become necessary to undergo premature delivery or have a blood transfusion before or after birth to boost her supply of red blood cells. In cases of mild Rh disease, many babies make a full recovery, some without any treatment at all.
One of the best things you can do to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy for you and your baby is to make prenatal care a priority. Working with your doctor, you can discover whether your baby is at risk for Rh disease and get her the treatment she needs to minimize any health complications. After all, you want to share many years together.