4D Ultrasound

Ultrasound equipment in clinic

4D ultrasound is like a sneak peek into a secret world. It's miles ahead of those fuzzy ultrasound pictures that show the baby as a faint white blob. Your insurance probably won't cover it, but if a pre-birth picture is important to you, 4D ultrasound may be just what you're looking for. However, be warned: the FDA says that these "keepsake" ultrasounds may not be a good idea.

Regular Ultrasound vs. 4D Ultrasound

The ultrasound machines most people are familiar with are known as "2D ultrasound." They use sound waves to get a fuzzy, two-dimensional picture of the baby. A skilled technician or doctor can identify the baby's head, body, arms, legs, and even sex, but to patients it usually looks like a burst of static. Sometimes you'll be able to make out facial features, but not clearly. These ultrasounds are used to check things like the baby's size and gestational age and to look for certain problems.

4D ultrasound is a more sophisticated technology. The underlying concept is the same: sound waves travel into the abdomen and echo back from inside. However, the 4D machine collects images faster and provides a much clearer, almost lifelike three-dimensional image. 4D machines can also provide video of the baby in motion. 3D ultrasound, which is also available, provides still photos but not video.

Uses for 4D Ultrasound

3D and 4D ultrasound can be very useful if your obstetrician is concerned about a problem with the baby. It can show the face, limbs, and body in detail. If a birth defect was suspected from a 2D ultrasound, a more sophisticated machine can show whether it's real and how bad it might be. 3D and 4D can also help guide the doctor's hand if a procedure must be done while the baby is still in the womb.

Risky Business for Baby?

For the most part, pregnancy ultrasound is considered safe. Obstetricians have been using ultrasound to monitor pregnancies for many years but doctors use ultrasound only when necessary. Increasingly, 4D ultrasound is offered as a way to get a peek into the womb and produce a "keepsake" photo to take home. Extra pictures are fun, but they may raise the risk of harm to the baby.

Here's why...the sound projected by an ultrasound machine is a form of energy. This energy can affect tissue, causing vibrations and a rise in temperature. In injured people, higher-energy ultrasounds are used to promote healing in bone fractures and to provide healing heat to sprains and pulled muscles. The 2D ultrasound machines that obstetricians usually use are fairly low-energy. The 3D and 4D machines that produce keepsake photos tend to release higher levels of energy. Although there's no proof that this is dangerous to the fetus, it also hasn't been proven to be safe.

Technician Training

Another concern is that the people operating 4D machines may not be well enough trained. 4D is often offered by companies that specialize in keepsake photos, not in medical care. There is no guarantee that the machines are in good working order. Exposure time and energy levels might be higher than a doctor would use. The technician may be more concerned with getting a good picture than with your baby's safety.

Follow-Up Fears

Doctors worry that keepsake ultrasounds may be dangerous if the companies don't make it clear that the 4D ultrasounds they offer aren't meant as prenatal care. Just because the keepsake technician doesn't say anything doesn't mean that all is well with the baby. Only a properly trained expert can interpret an ultrasound, no matter how clear the picture is. Keepsake ultrasounds should never replace proper prenatal exams.

Reasons for Ultrasound

Until there is more information about the safety of keepsake ultrasounds, the FDA recommends having an ultrasound only at your doctor's recommendation. 2D ultrasound is fine for most purposes, and the energy level should be the lowest necessary to get a usable picture. 4D ultrasound should be reserved for times when a clearer picture is essential.

Here are some legitimate reasons to have an ultrasound, as listed by the FDA:

  • Diagnosing pregnancy
  • Determining fetal age
  • Diagnosing congenital abnormalities
  • Evaluating position of placenta
  • Determining multiple pregnancies

For More Information

You can read the FDA's concerns about misuse of 4D ultrasound here.

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