When you go to your first appointment with an OB GYN you intend to work with during a pregnancy, whether you are already pregnant or are still in the planning and trying stages, there will be a lot of forms to be filled out and the ones relating to medical history will usually be the longest.

Before you whiz through all the questions ticking ‘no’ in all the boxes stop and think, especially when it comes to the family medical history section. To some potential first time patients being asked a lot of questions about their family’s medical history can seem a bit irrelevant and some of the questions can even seem downright rude and intrusive. Yet these questions are not asked just for the sake of making a form even longer or to give the office staff a bit more work to do (which trust me, most of the time they do not need) Even though the actual creation of a new life is the work of you and your partner alone your family medical histories are potentially more important than you might imagine.

How Your Family Medical History (and His) Might Affect Your Pregnancy

Your family history – not just your own Mum and Dad and grandparents but aunts and uncles and cousins as well – can give clues to just what complications might arise in your own pregnancy. Having this information can be a way for your doctor to plan your future care and be aware of anything extra that they and their staff should be on the look out for.

The most obvious thing that a family history can tell you is if there are is a history of certain genetic abnormalities in your family. This does not just involve things like Down’s Syndrome, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. Deafness, blindness, mental illnesses, certain heart or other organ defects and even a history of unexplained miscarriage can all have genetic components.

The existence of such a medical history does not mean that any of this will necessarily affect your baby but having all of this information available to them is a great help to doctors. In some cases it may mean that genetic testing is called for (which is why if you can do all this before conceiving it really is much better) and in many others it may just mean that a more watchful eye will be kept on certain things than might be the case for other Mums to Be.

Compiling a Family Medical History

The hardest part about compiling a family medical history from both sides of your families can actually be getting the information in the first place. You may talk to your parents a lot but how much do you actually know about their medical history, especially since such things are not usually the subject of polite dinner conversation? Asking them should be quite easy though (if occasionally a little uncomfortable) but finding about about the rest of your family can be harder.

To provide the most accurate possible family medical histories you should try to go back at least two generations and if you can get information about a third then that is even better. Sometimes genetic experts cannot see patterns until they have that much information in front of them. if at all possible the information you gather about each family member should include:

  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
  • Age when each condition was diagnosed
  • Lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise and tobacco use
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

Dealing with Resistance

It is not all that unusual that asking for this kind of information can be net with some resistance and reluctance. There may be some information that your relatives, especially the more distant ones who perhaps know you less well, just do not feel quite comfortable about sharing. In many cases this may be understandable but there are some ways you can go about asking the questions that may be more appropriate.

Share Your Purpose – If you are in the planning and pre-conception stages of pregnancy your family will obviously wonder why you are suddenly asking them all of these questions. If you are upfront about why you are asking for this very personal information then people will naturally be more inclined to be a little more forthcoming and willing to share.

Give People Options – If a relative really does not want to discuss something in person or over the phone tell them that a very brief letter or email instead will be just fine. Explain that you are not looking for any personal details they do not want to share, just very basic facts about you family’s medical history that might help you have a more successful pregnancy.

Keep their Confidence – One of the reasons people might be reluctant to share personal medical information is that although they are OK with you, a member of their own family, having the information they are less happy about the idea that a stranger might have it. You can overcome much of this resistance though by explaining that you will not reveal their names or any other identifying details and will only use labels like ‘aunt’ or ‘cousin’ instead.

All of this detective work might seem like a big undertaking but it might just end up being a very important one. The ‘best case scenario’ is if you can gather all of this information before you conceive. However we all know that not all pregnancies are planned, some of them are nice surprises but finding the time to gather all of this information as soon as possible – maybe even enlisting the help of a member of your family who tends to keep in touch with everyone in the family a lot – is worth the extra effort. And who knows? You might hear some great family anecdotes you never heard before and learn a little bit more about yourself and your family in the process!