Are ultrasounds safe?

By Peter Van Eerden, MD Jun 12, 2017

When you are pregnant, you probably want to know as much as you can about your baby. One of the ways to do that is by having a fetal ultrasound. Most women will have at least one ultrasound during their pregnancy.

Ultrasound is safe for your baby if used properly and has been used during pregnancy for about 50 years. Although there is no reliable evidence that ultrasounds cause physical harm, it is currently recommended that the casual use of ultrasound should be avoided. It is usually done in your doctor’s office, in the radiology department or in a perinatal unit.

Uses for Ultrasound

Many parents want to know if they are having a boy or a girl, but that’s not all an ultrasound can tell us. It can be used to

  • tell how far along you are and help determine your due date.
  • check your baby’s heartbeat and to tell if you are having twins or more.
  • check your baby’s growth, the placenta as well as the amount of amniotic fluid.
  • check for any major or minor structural abnormalities.

Birth Defects

Major birth defects occur in 2 to 4 percent of live-born infants and are not different between ethnic groups. Usually an ultrasound is done when you are about 18 to 20 weeks pregnant to look for any evidence of birth defects. They can occur by themselves or in combination with other birth defects.

We don’t know everything about why birth defects happen, but there can be a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors that may increase the risk. Other risk factors for having a baby with birth defects include family history of birth defects, maternal age and drug use.

Your Ultrasound

During your ultrasound, usually a person known as a sonographer will do the ultrasound on your baby and take pictures of the baby for the doctor to look at later. Many times, the sonographer will not be able to tell you anything about what they are seeing, but your doctor will receive a report and you will be informed about the findings.

Should there be anything abnormal found on your ultrasound, you may be referred to a maternal-fetal medicine expert for further revaluation and planning. By finding birth defects such as heart defects or other congenital abnormalities, this can help you prepare for the birth of your child. This may include reading about the specifics of what is going on with your baby, meeting with providers who care for babies with these specific conditions after birth, and even planning for delivery at a medical center that can care for your baby immediately after birth.

Hopefully, the ultrasound will not detect any problems with your baby. Knowing your baby doesn’t have any problems can also be very reassuring and decrease the amount of stress you are experiencing with your pregnancy. In this way, you can be best prepared for the birth of your baby and the ultrasound findings can help with optimizing your baby’s outcome after delivery.

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