Can your baby be affected by your genes?

Some rare diseases can be passed to your children through your genes. You may have heard of diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. All of these diseases get passed to babies through their parents—even if their parents don’t have any signs of the disease. 

Carrier testing, also known as carrier screening, is a way to find out if you and your partner have a high chance of passing a disease or condition to your children. You can have your genes tested, along with your partner’s. If you both have the genes for a specific disease, there is a greater chance you will pass it to at least one of your children.

Just because you don’t have any symptoms doesn’t mean you aren’t a carrier for a disease. Carriers are people who have the genes for a specific disease or condition, but don’t necessarily have any signs or symptoms of that disease. In order for a child to inherit that disease from their parents, both parents must pass on the gene for a specific disease or condition.

Who should get tested?

Carrier testing is a very personal decision. It’s not for everyone. Researchers do know that people from certain ethnic backgrounds have a higher risk for genetic diseases. For example:

  • Ashkenazi Jews are at higher risk for many genetic diseases, including Tay-Sachs and cystic fibrosis
  • African-Americans are at higher risk for several diseases including sickle-cell anemia
  • Many people of Asian ancestry are at higher risk for genetic diseases as well

Genetic diseases can affect people from all ethnic backgrounds, so if you’re concerned about passing a disease to your children, talk with your doctor. You can also talk with a genetic counselor, a healthcare professional who works with people thinking about getting tested. The National Society of Genetic Counselors has a searchable list of genetic counselors you can use. The best time to be tested for genetic diseases is when you are planning a pregnancy. Even if both of the parents are carriers, they can still have normal, healthy babies, but it does mean that there is some risk.