Ultrasounds During Pregnancy: Can They Hurt the Baby?

So maybe it's not exactly fun to lay on a hard table while a stranger squirts a bunch of freezing cold goop onto your very pregnant belly. Still, getting to see your baby for the very first time -- and confirming that she's healthy -- makes getting an ultrasound one of the most emotionally charged moments of pregnancy. But is it a safe moment? 

Back in the '90s, a mom-to-be received just one ultrasound during her pregnancy. Another routine ultrasound was recommended by docs in the early 2000s. Flash ahead to today's OB/GYN offices, and according to a 2013 study, moms typically see a scratchy image of their babe on an ultrasound screen four, or even five, times before she ever arrives in person (not to mention portable ultrasound devices are readily for sale and businesses offer "4D prenatal portraits," which are creepy or precious, depending on whom you ask).


All these extra ultrasounds beg the question: are they good for baby?

Ultrasounds can produce effects in the body, like heating tissue -- which is why, in very high amounts, it's sometimes used to heal pulled muscles or even bone fractures. "[But] with low-intensity range of real-time imaging, no fetal risks have been demonstrated in more than 35 years of use," says Yen Tran, MD, an OB/GYN with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California.

Unlike X-rays, ultrasounds don't emit radiation. During a fetal ultrasound, a technician presses a hand-held transducer (the thing that looks like a wand) against your belly. That sends out high-frequency sound waves that reflect off any soft tissue like muscles, organs, and fluids inside your body. The returning sound waves, or echoes, get displayed on the monitor (the gel applied beforehand prevents air pockets from forming between your skin and the wand, so the technician gets a clearer image).

Ultrasound is a lot like the sonar bats use, which, if you like bats, is pretty cool.

And it is useful. "Ultrasounds can help an OB/GYN track the growth of a fetus and potentially identify any issues that appear during pregnancy," says Hal C. Lawrence, MD, EVP and CEO of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Your doctor might order an ultrasound exam during your first trimester to evaluate a suspected ectopic pregnancy or pelvic pain. During your second or third, you might get one to assist with amniocentesis or check for congenital anomalies.

"How many ultrasounds a patient has during pregnancy is determined by their medical conditions and symptoms," says Tran. "Most physicians will only order an ultrasound if they have a reason."

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Now if you're talking about "entertainment ultrasounds" or "keepsake fetal imaging" done outside of a medical office, that's a whole other story.

"Conducting an ultrasound for nonmedical purposes, like obtaining additional or more frequent photographs of the fetus in utero, does not provide a medical benefit to mother or child, so it's not a part of medical practice," explains Lawrence. "Nonmedical ultrasounds could wrongly reassure women about their gestational development or identify abnormalities without providing the medical support necessary.”

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates ultrasound equipment in doctors' offices, has repeatedly warned eager parents away from these "ultrasound shops," where in some cases, moms undergo ultrasounds for as long as an hour.

"The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine recommends that fetal sonography be performed only by professionals who have been trained ... to avoid ultrasound exposure beyond what's considered safe for the fetus," says Tran.

How many ultrasounds did you have during your pregnancy?

Image via Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

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