What's an Ultrasound?
For many expectant parents, ultrasounds offer a window into the
world of their growing unborn baby. Unlike most standard
that involve nothing more than a urine cup or a needle, ultrasounds
present the opportunity to get a sneak preview of what's to
come and to actually see what's going on inside - if the heart
is beating normally or if the baby registry should contain pink or
Despite all of the whimsical notions that many parents-to-be have
about ultrasounds, they're still medical procedures that
require a health provider's order. However, a test that was
once used solely by medical professionals is now being utilized by
businesses in strip malls and shopping centers to sell keepsake
prenatal portraits and videos.
Using technology that allows parents to see high-resolution
three- and four-dimensional (moving) images of their babies in the
womb, these facilities may employ poorly trained - or even
untrained - technicians who aren't given a health
provider's order to authorize the procedure and aren't
supervised by a physician. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) and the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM)
warn parents-to-be that these nonmedical ultrasounds are
unapproved, inappropriate, and possibly even risky.
How It Works
A common diagnostic procedure, an ultrasound uses high-frequency
sound waves to "echo," or bounce, off the body and create
a picture. A special jelly is applied to the skin on the expectant
mother's abdomen, and a wand-like instrument (called a
transducer) is positioned over it. Sound waves are generated and
reflected back to the transducer as electric impulses, which
produce an image of the baby on a computer screen. The images seen
on most two-dimensional ultrasounds are difficult for the untrained
eye to decipher. What might look like a hand to an expectant parent
might actually be a foot - which is why the images must be
interpreted by a properly trained technician. A doctor will then
view the report and make his or her own interpretations.
When used as they were to intended be used - in low power levels
and for short periods of time by trained professionals such as
sonographers, radiologists, and obstetricians - ultrasounds are a
standard procedure used to:
- diagnose a pregnancy
- determine multiple pregnancies
- verify the age of the fetus
- detect birth defects and fetal movement
- evaluate the position of the placenta
- monitor the fetal growth and heartbeat
Usually performed between 18 and 20 weeks, an ultrasound may be
done sooner or later and sometimes more than once.
Risks of Nonmedical Ultrasounds
Although it seems harmless to get an extra ultrasound or two,
the long-term effects of repeated ultrasounds on a fetus are still
unknown. And facilities offering ultrasounds for the purpose of
selling videos or portraits - or finding out the baby's gender
- may employ poorly trained or untrained technicians who use high
power levels for longer periods of time than is deemed safe.
In addition, women getting ultrasounds without a health
provider's order may be expecting to hear that that there are
no deformities or complications - a diagnosis that an untrained
technician cannot make. The FDA is also concerned that these
nonmedical ultrasounds are being misinterpreted as medical
examinations and are preventing women from seeking standard
Although it might be tempting to get your baby's first
portrait before the little bundle of joy is even born, talk to your
obstetrician, nurse-midwife, or family doctor if you're an
expectant parent and have questions about ultrasounds. If
you've already had a nonmedical ultrasound, be sure to follow
up with your health provider.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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