Ultrasound Basics: Standard, 3D or 4D?

Filed under: Your Pregnancy, Resources

ultrasound

Some independent facilities offer 3D and 4D ultrasounds as pregnancy keepsakes. Credit: Getty Images

When scheduling an ultrasound with your obstetrician during a routine pregnancy, don't think of it as your baby's first photo.

Most health care providers use standard ultrasound equipment that renders a two-dimensional look at the growing fetus. Although more sophisticated equipment exists -- and eager mothers might seek it out -- it's generally not available in a typical doctor's office.

For doctors, ultrasound is a medical tool designed to check the development of the growing fetus, says Dr. Alfred Abuhamad, president-elect of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine. Obstetricians use ultrasound -- or sound waves that are converted into pictures -- to look for congenital physical problems and to check for multiple pregnancies.

"It's very helpful," says Abuhamad, who also serves as chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va. "It allows us to look at the baby -- really treat the baby as a patient."

Doctors normally don't recommend a three-dimensional ultrasound, which uses sound waves sent at different angles to provide a more detailed image, or four-dimensional ultrasound, which relays an animated or moving 3D image of the fetus, unless they see something during a standard ultrasound that merits a closer look, Abuhamad says.

Three-dimensional ultrasounds, he says, offer a clearer picture of the face and organs if the doctor is concerned about abnormalities. Doctors sometimes use 4D ultrasounds to get a better look at a baby's heart, he adds.

In recent years, independent centers have begun offering 3D and 4D ultrasounds for women as a keepsake of their pregnancy. The packages, which typically cost $120 or more, are not covered by a woman's insurance.

Abuhamad and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourage women from going anywhere but their doctor's office for an ultrasound.

"Obstetric ultrasound is best obtained through standard prenatal care," ACOG states on its website.

The worry is that these companies may not employ professionals with medical backgrounds and women may receive inaccurate information about the condition of their babies, Abuhamad says.

"You don't know how competent the people are that are performing these (procedures)," he says.

On its website, ACOG also cautions women that "not much is known about the effects of repeated exposure to ultrasound."

Women typically get two ultrasounds during pregnancy -- one at eight to 12 weeks and another around 20 weeks.
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