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Pregnancy Ultrasound

A pregnancy ultrasound is a common procedure during pregnancy, and though it is generally considered safe, pregnant women should understand the procedure, what to expect from it, and the potential risk. Learn about pregnancy ultrasounds here.

Pregnancy ultrasound uses sound waves that are inaudible to humans to create images. It can create pictures of bones, muscles, tendons, and some organs like the heart, brain, and bladder. This allows doctors to check on the health of the fetus, and may allow the mother to get her baby’s first picture before it is even born.

In normal pregnancies women in the US usually have one or two ultrasounds. Most insurance plans cover at least one pregnancy ultrasound, at about the 20th week of the pregnancy, and some allow one very early in the pregnancy as well, after 6 or 7 weeks when the heartbeat will be visible. Other pregnancy ultrasounds that are medially necessary, such as if the doctor suspects there might be a problem with the fetus, are also usually covered.

Expectant mothers usually don’t need any special preparations for a pregnancy ultrasound. Some doctors will ask them to come with a full or an empty bladder. The woman might have to change into a hospital gown, but in many cases the woman can wear her own clothes as long as she can uncover her belly.

To do the ultrasound, the woman lies down on an exam table, and the technician puts a gel on her abdomen and uses a device called a transducer to get the ultrasound images. In certain cases the technician may use a vaginal transducer to get a clearer picture. There may be some pressure from the transducer, but it is not normally painful. The technician will move the transducer around to get multiple pictures of the fetus. A typical pregnancy ultrasound takes about 30 minutes. They may print pictures or a video for the mother, depending on the policies of the facility where the ultrasound is performed. Pictures may be 2-D or 3-D, and a video is considered a 4-D ultrasound.

The pregnancy ultrasound is normally performed at around 20 weeks can tell doctors and expectant parents a number of things:

  • The age of the fetus and approximate pregnancy due date (how far along in the pregnancy the mother is)
  • That the fetus is alive
  • If fetus is moving and has a regular heartbeat
  • That fetus is growing in the uterus and not outside of it in an ectopic pregnancy, which is always fatal to the fetus and also fatal to the mother if not detected
  • If the fetus has certain abnormalities, which may require medical care before birth or immediately after birth
  • If there are any problems with the uterus or cervix that may require medical attention
  • How many fetuses there are, in most cases
  • The fetus’s gender, depending on the baby’s position. This is only the opinion of the technician, however, and sometimes they are wrong.
  • The levels of fluid surrounding the baby
  • The position of the fetus
  • The position of the placenta

Pregnancy ultrasound risks

Some studies have suggested a possible risk to the development of the fetus from overexposure to ultrasound. Routine ultrasound during pregnancy is still considered safe, and most doctors agree that the benefits of ultrasound outweigh the risks. In the US, the FDA sets standards on the use of pregnancy ultrasounds to keep risks to a minimum.

It is not recommended that parents get novelty pregnancy ultrasounds or purchase their own ultrasound machine because it may unnecessarily expose the fetus to potentially hazardous levels of ultrasound. Also, a person who is not trained to read ultrasounds may give parents false information about their baby, causing parents unnecessary worry or making them miss problems that need medical attention.

Related Article: Pregnancy by Trimester >>