I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager in the nineties and early 2000s, my sex education classes made it seem like getting pregnant was pretty much the easiest thing in the world. Our teachers assured us that if we had sex without a condom even once, we would certainly become teen parents. You want an education or career? Don’t be silly; wrap your willy.
When I was in my late twenties, married and ready to become a mom, I found out that it’s not always that simple. It took us almost three years to conceive our first son. In that time, I must have taken a hundred pregnancy tests. I read so many books about fertility that I felt like I could teach a class.
The worst part of every month was waiting two weeks after ovulation to take a pregnancy test. The time would linger on and on, feeling like two centuries every single month. “The Two-Week Wait” was a huge drag.
As it turns out, I could have cut that time down by almost half! I always saw those tests that promised results six days before your missed period, but I assumed it was a gimmick. I stuck with the cheap sticks you can get in bulk from Amazon, convinced the tests were all the same. I was wrong!
According to Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, practicing physician and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Yale University, those extra-sensitive tests are legit. Dr. Minkin agreed to talk to Scary Mommy to impart her expert knowledge about early pregnancy detection, and why it’s important.
Give us a little background about how pregnancy tests work.
“What happens is, when the fertilization takes place and the egg and sperm get together, that happens in the fallopian tube. They travel together down the fallopian tube into the uterus and they plant in to the lining of the uterus, which is implantation. What happens then is development starts and the embryo at this point starts making some of the membranes that are the beginning stages of the placenta, which is going to help nourish the growing embryo. What happens is that this placenta-to-be tissue starts allowing a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, and this is the hormone that actually gives you the positive pregnancy test,” explains Dr. Minkin.
When is the best time to take a pregnancy test?
“When the first batch of tests came out, they could detect levels of about 700, then it came down to 200, and then the fancier and fancier and better tests being developed could detect lower and lower levels of this human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). The earliest level detectable by the fancy technology that has evolved is about 6 days before you skip a period. That level is about 9, 10, somewhere in there,” she says.
Basically, states Dr. Minkin, it’s not a matter of when is the best time to take a test. Sure, if you wanted to wait until two weeks after your period was due, you’d get a high level of HCG and a very accurate test — but most people, of course, are eager to know as soon as they possibly can. So the question is, what level of this hormone can you possibly detect? And that level is about 9 or 10 units excreted into the urine, which is typically achieved about 6 days before the first day of missed menstrual period.
What are the advantages of early pregnancy detection?
The earlier you know that you’re pregnant, the earlier you can start taking optimal care of yourself — and your baby. “I tell everybody to take their folic acid, not drink, not smoke, not do drugs, do all these good and wonderful things — [and] I find the best motivator is to know you’re pregnant,” says Dr. Minkin.
Are there any disadvantages to early detection technology?
“The major downside is the chemical pregnancy. [A very early miscarriage, usually characterized by a positive test followed by a regular period.] However, I think that as long as somebody psychologically understands that probably a lot of pregnancies ‘don’t take,’ and knowing earlier we are probably picking up more of them, sometimes that’s not bad knowledge.”
What can we do to ensure an accurate result?
Dr. Minkin’s primary advice: Don’t try too early. “I’ve had someone ask me, ‘I had sex last night. Can I take the test?’ We’re not that good with the fancy technology. We’re not quite there!”
She also adds that you shouldn’t be devastated if a test is negative 6 days before your period. You’re not out of the game until your period shows up.
Are there any medically sound, super early symptoms we can look for?
“I would tend to rely on the testing, because you can get these symptoms from almost anything, and you can talk yourself into being queasy, being fatigued,” Dr. Minkin explains. “I do have patients that will tell me they knew they were pregnant. I can’t dispute it, but it’s very unlikely that any of these symptoms would be ‘pathognomonic,’ our fancy word for [characteristic of a certain condition.]”
What can we do to prepare for that positive test?
“The major vitamin that’s special to pregnancy or pregnancy planning is folic acid. The reason I tell people that is, although it’s nice to take it once you know you’re pregnant, there actually is data to show that women who conceive while they’re taking folic acid substantially reduce their risk of neural tube defects, things like meningomyelocele and hydrocephaly,” Dr. Minkin assures us.
If you’re trying to get pregnant, waiting to know for sure whether that month is “your month,” can make you feel impatient. Thanks to amazing pregnancy test technology, some of us can actually turn that “two week wait” into just eight or nine days. Our grandmothers could never have imagined this!
For more educational content from Dr. Minkin, visit her website, MadameOvary.com.