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Newborn Screening Guide for Prenatal Educators

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Why Teach Newborn Screening?

Baby's footThis guide is designed to make it easy for you,  a prenatal educator, to effectively inform expectant parents about newborn screening.  All of the information contained in this curriculum is based on the recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics*.  The suggestions for disseminating this information are based on a series of focus groups and interviews with new parents and prenatal educators.

More than four million infants are born and undergo newborn screening in the U.S. each year.  While metabolic disorders are rare, the universal process for screening is not. A recent study suggests that for every true positive test result from newborn screening, there are 12 false positive ones. For many parents this causes significant anxiety.  Through educating expectant parents about newborn screening in your courses, you will alleviate their fears regarding initial positive test results and ensure they act quickly in re-testing their new baby.

*Lloyd-Puryear, M. A., Tonniges, T., van Dyck, P. C., Mann, M. Y., Brin, A., Johnson, K., et al. (2006). American Academy of Pediatrics newborn screening task force recommendations: how far have we come? Pediatrics, 117(5), S194-S211.

What Expectant Parents Need to Know

Universal screening occurs because, while most babies with these disorders may look healthy at birth, their metabolism is not processing their food properly. By detecting a metabolic disorder and initiating treatment early, serious health problems can be avoided.  Newborn screening prevents mental retardation, physical disability and even death that can occur in infants with undiagnosed metabolic disorders.

How to Explain Newborn Screening
Newborn Screening is a simple test done by taking a few drops of blood from every baby’s heel.  It is usually done within 24 to 48 hours after a baby is born.  The American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) recommends that 29 disorders are screened for at birth. In some states the expanded screening is optional. However throughout New England, newborn screening for all disorders are available to all babies.

The Results
Mother's hands and baby's feetYour state’s newborn screening program runs the infant’s blood sample through a series of tests and then notifies the infant’s pediatrician of the results.  Some  doctors inform the parents of the test results, but the majority do not unless follow-up is needed. Parents can ask their pediatrician for the results after a few weeks if they are not contacted by their doctor.

Follow-up Testing
The family’s pediatrician will call and inform parents if their baby needs follow-up testing, an immediate referral to a metabolic clinic, or an emergency room visit. This does not necessarily mean that the newborn is at risk. Abnormal results are often due to special circumstances like premature birth , a blood sample taken incorrectly, or a transient finding.  However, timely follow-up is important because abnormal results can indicate a metabolic disorder.

A False-Positive Result
The majority of repeat tests will not indicate a metabolic disorder.  The infant’s pediatrician will be informed by the newborn screening program of the follow-up test results. The pediatrician should then contact the family directly with the results. Families should be encouraged to contact their doctor if they are not informed of the results soon after the test is performed.

A Positive Result
If follow-up testing indicates a true positive then the family will be referred to a metabolic specialist.  The metabolic specialist will then do additional laboratory and/or genetic tests to confirm the diagnosis.  Through their metabolic clinic infants will receive treatment and parents will learn more about the care plan to prevent the consequences of an untreated metabolic disorder.

baby_sleepingCost of testing
The initial newborn screening and follow-up screening are of no cost to the parents.

Special considerations
If a blood transfusion is needed, the health care provider will wait 24 hours to take the blood sample from a newborn. An additional sample may be requested for these infants.

Testing of premature and sick infants occurs just before they leave the hospital or at 4 to 6 weeks after birth to increase the accuracy of the screening. This ensures they have not had a delayed release of hormones affecting their metabolism.

Credible Resources for Parents

Cute babyToday the most common way for people to look up medical information is through the internet. These are some of the most reliable resources available online for questions about newborn screening.  It is important to stress to expectant parents that their health care provider is the best resource and these sites are for additional information.

Web Resources:

For the best follow-up have parents should contact their pediatrician or their State Department of Health

The American College of Medical Genetics 29 Disorders Recommended for Screening

The ACMG recommends these 29 disorders for newborn screening.  Expanded screening including each of these disorders is available throughout New England but each state mandates which disorders are required for screening differently. Be sure to know the laws in your state and inform your students of their options for screening their child.

Amino Acid Metabolism Disorders

Phenylketonuria (PKU) occurs in 1 in 25,000 newborns. Persons with PKU are unable to properly process the essential amino acid phenylalanine. PKU can result in severe mental retardation unless detected soon after birth and treated with a special formula.

Maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) incidence rate is less than 1 in 100,000. This inborn error of metabolism can be lethal if unrecognized and untreated. Rapid diagnosis and treatment are major factors in survival and outcome. Treatment consists of a special low-protein diet, which will vary depending on severity of symptoms, and sometimes, supplementation with the vitamin thiamin.

Homocystinuria (HCY) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 babies. Individuals with this disorder lack an enzyme responsible for metabolizing the amino acid homocysteine towards cystathionine, which is needed for normal brain development. Treatment consists of a special diet and other supplements.

Citrullinemia (CIT) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000. In citnulliuemia there is a build-up in the body of citrulline as well as ammonia. With early diagnosis and treatment, normal development is possible. Treatment includes a low-protein diet, medications, and nutritional supplements.

Argininosuccinic acidemia (ASA) incidence is less than 1 in 100,000. Symptoms for ASA most often begin in the first few days of life, with build-up of argininosuccinic acid and ultimately ammonia.  Treatment consists of a low-protein diet, avoiding fasting, medications to prevent ammonia build-up, nutritional supplements, and in some cases, a liver transplant.

Tyrosinemia type I (TYR I) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 infants.  TYR I is due to absence of an enzyme, byproducts of the amino acid tyrosine, and a very toxic compound called succinylacetone that build up in the liver. Drug treatment, sometimes along with a low-protein diet, is very effective in preventing liver and kidney damage.

Organic Acid Metabolism Disorders

Isovaleric acidemia (IVA) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000.  IVA is the inability to process the amino acid leucine. With early diagnosis and treatment, most children have normal development. Treatment includes a special formula and a low-protein diet.

Glutaric acidemia type I (GA I) has an incidence of about 1 in 100,000.  Babies may develop normally up to 6 months of age or later until a high fever associated with a virus or immunization triggers the onset of symptoms. Some affected babies also are born with an enlarged head (macrocephaly). Treatment can vary, but may include a special formula with dietary protein restriction and supplementation with a nutrient called L-carnitine.

Hydroxymethylglutaric aciduria or HMG-CoA lyase deficiency or 3-OH 3-CH3 glutaric aciduria (HMG) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 newborns.  These babies have the inability to process the amino acid leucine. Avoiding fasting and following a diet low in protein and fat and high in carbohydrates can lead to normal development.

Multiple carboxylase deficiency (MCD) has an incidence rate less than 1 in 100,000. This disorder is caused by a defect of an enzyme required to activate several biotin-dependent enzymes. Early diagnosis and treatment with biotin allows normal growth and development.

Biotinidase deficiency has an incidence of less than 1 in 100,000.  This disorder is caused by a defect of an enzyme required to activate several biotin-dependent enzymes. Early diagnosis and treatment with biotin allows normal growth and development.

Methylmalonic acidemia (MMA) occurs in greater than 1 in 75,000 newborns.  MMA is a defect in the breakdown of methylmalonic acid.  Acute illness can occur during the first week of life. Treatment includes a special formula with a low-protein diet, vitamin B12 injections, and nutritional supplements.

3-Methylcrotonyl-CoA carboxylase deficiency (3MCC) occurs in greater than 1 in 75,000 infants. 3MCC is a defect in processing the amino acid leucine. It often causes no problems. If necessary treatment with a low-protein diet and, in some cases, nutritional supplements may be given.

Propionic acidemia (PAA) occurs in greater than 1 in 75,000 babies.  It can cause severe illness in the first days of life.  A special formula and a low-protein diet are necessary.  Even with treatment the outcomes may include health problems.

Beta-Ketothiolase deficiency (BKT) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 newborns.  BKT presents with periodic episodes of acid build-up that can often be triggered by some childhood illness.  With early diagnosis and prompt intravenous treatment to keep blood sugar levels up and blood acid levels down during an illness, children can develop normally. Additional treatments may vary, but can include avoidance of protein-rich diets and long-term treatment with bicarbonate.

Fatty Acid Oxidation Disorders

Medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency (MCADD) occurs in 1 in 25,000 babies. Prolonged fasting or febrile illness, especially when accompanied by vomiting can produce liver failure, low blood sugar, or sudden death. Treatment includes carnitine, avoidance of fasting and prompt treatment of acute illness.

Very long-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency (VLCADD) has an incidence greater than 1 in 75,000.  Symptoms can first appear at any age from the newborn period through adulthood, but tend to be most severe in infants. Affected infants often have heart disease. Treatment includes a high-carbohydrate/low-fat diet, carnitine and avoidance of fasting

Long-chain 3-OH acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency (LCHADD) occurs in greater than 1 in 75,000 infants. Symptoms may include low muscle tone, developmental delay, heart problems and eye abnormalities. Treatment includes a high-carbohydrate/low-fat diet, carnitine, and avoidance of fasting.

Trifunctional protein deficiency (TFP) has an incidence of less than 1 in 100,000.  TFP is clinically indistinguishable from LCADD (above)

Carnitine uptake defect (CUD) occurs in less than 1 in 100,000 babies.  These infants are missing a transporter that brings in carnitine into the cells from the blood. Early diagnosis and treatment with carnitine permits normal development.


Sickle cell anemia (Hb SS) incidence rate is greater than 1 in 5,000 and has a much higher incidence among African-Americans at 1 in 400. Hb SS is a blood disease that can cause severe pain, damage to the vital organs, stroke, and sometimes death in childhood. Affected babies should receive prophylactic penicillin to prevent overwhelming infantile infection.  Additional treatments may include intermittent pain medications and regular blood transfusions.

Hb S/Beta-Thalassemia (Hb S/Th) occurs in greater than 1 in 50,000 infants. In this form of sickle cell anemia, the child inherits one sickle cell gene and one gene for beta thalassemia, another inherited anemia. Routine treatment with penicillin is usually given to affected children.

Hb S/C disease (Hb S/C) occurs in greater than 1 in 25,000 infants. Hb S/C is another form of sickle cell disease, in which the child inherits one sickle cell gene and one gene for another abnormal type of hemoglobin called HbC. As with Hb S/Th, this form is often milder the Hb SS and routine penicillin treatment may or may not be recommended.


This mixed group of disorders includes some diseases that are inherited and others that are not genetic. This group of disorders varies greatly in severity, from mild to life-threatening.

Congenital hypothyroidism (CH) occurs in greater than 1 in 5,000 babies. CH is a thyroid hormone deficiency which severely affects both growth and brain development. If detected soon after birth, the condition can be treated simply with oral doses of thyroid hormone to permit normal development.

Biotinidase deficiency (BIOT) has an incidence of greater than 1 in 75,000. BIOT is an inherited deficiency of Biotinidase. Undiagnosed and untreated, the deficiency can lead to coma and death. If the condition is detected soon after birth, these problems can be completely prevented with daily oral doses of biotin.

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) occurs in greater than 1 in 25,000 newborns.  CAH refers to an inherited disorder resulting from a defect in the synthesis of hormones produced by the adrenal gland. It can cause severe salt depletion in early infancy that may result in death unless promptly treated with intravenous therapy.  Treatment includes hormone replacement.

Classical galactosemia (GALT) occurs in greater than 1 in 50,000 babies.  Affected babies are missing the enzyme needed to metabolize milk sugar. Milk and other dairy products must be eliminated from the baby’s diet. Though treatment dramatically improves the outlook for affected infants, there is still some risk of problems such as speech defects and ovarian failure in girls.

Hearing loss (HEAR) has an incidence of greater than 1 in 5,000. Without early testing, most babies with hearing loss are not diagnosed until 2 or 3 years of age. Early diagnosis allows use of hearing aids by 6 months of age, helping prevent serious speech and language problems.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) occurs in greater than 1 in 5,000 babies.  Abnormalities in the cystic fibrosis protein result in lung and digestive problems.  Treatment varies depending on severity of symptoms, but may include a high-calorie diet supplemented with vitamins and medications to improve digestion, respiratory therapy to help clear mucus from the lungs, and medications to improve breathing and prevent lung infections.

*Adapted by Dr. Harvey Levy, Boston Children’s Hospital, from  Recommended newborn screening tests: 29 disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2008, from March of Dimes Web site: http://www.marchofdimes.com/professionals/14332_15455.asp

Activities to Incorporate

Baby Head to Toe

Using a doll or photo of an infant, review all of the testing that a newborn undergoes.  This pairs well with discussing infant care or in the postpartum section of your childbirth education course. Be sure to include all of the information on newborn screening that is included in this booklet.

Baby sitting

March of  Dimes Newborn Screening Video

This video covers newborn screening from a parent’s perspective. It can easily be used to correspond with the information provided in this packet.

Brochure on Proper Follow-up to Newborn Screening

This brochure on follow-up to newborn screening can be distributed to parents as an  additional resource. Click here to view the complete brochure.

Newborn Screening - A Guide for Parents

Newborn Screening Report Card

This card can be distributed during your discussion about newborn screening. It is to be used in a baby book. The front identifies what metabolic disorders were screened for. The back side is printed on so that the important follow-up information is easily available if needed. Click here for a printable, full-size version of the report card.

Newborn Screening Report Card


PDF Click here for a complete, printable PDF version of this guide.
Click here to order a full-color, paper booklet of this guide.

This guide is made possible by

Boston Children's Hospital


The New England Genetics Collaborative

This project is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration,   administered through the New England Genetics Collaborative, HRSA Grant Number 2 U22MC03959-04-00

This project was developed by Stacey Dickert, a graduate student at Emerson College, in collaboration with Susan Waisbren, PhD, Boston Children’s Hospital. © 2008

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