Ultrasound technology became a standard of care for pregnancy by the late 1970s. It is now estimated that nearly 70% of pregnant women in the United States receive at least one ultrasound scan.
In recent years, many have questioned whether or not this routine procedure is always helpful or may be causing potential harm.
Even before my first pregnancy I remember looking forward to the moment when I would catch a sweet in-utero glimpse of my baby’s face. I had seen “boutique” or “keepsake ultrasound” photos that friends and acquaintances shared on social media and, at the time, I believed it to be a fun “rite of passage” for motherhood.
When I finally became pregnant, and after a little research of my own, I realized that my desire to have unnecessary ultrasounds of my son might come at a cost (and I am not just referring to the price of an extra scan, unlikely covered by health insurance).
I read that there is not enough research to know how the effects of an ultrasound (such as tissue heating) ultimately may affect an infant. Another potential concern is cavitation, or the possible creation of “bubbles” inside cell membranes, generated from ultrasonic waves. In fact, for these reasons, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only recommends “medically necessary” ultrasounds during pregnancy.
There are certainly benefits to receiving an ultrasound scan and there are absolutely many cases of medical necessity. Some of these may include:
- Peace of mind
- Improved mother and baby bonding
- Estimation of baby’s arrival date
- Diagnosis of multiple gestation
- Observing appropriate fetal growth
- Identification of fetal anomalies
- Placental location
- Measurement of amniotic fluid volume
There is also guidance for sonographers to improve safety during ultrasound scans, including limiting time spent getting multiple images of the fetal head, avoiding fetal dopplers in the first trimester, and reducing output power at the start of the ultrasound and only increasing power as needed.
Are there any other potential harms?
Unfortunately, diagnostic errors during ultrasound scans may sometimes cause unnecessary worry. A dear friend of mine underwent a series of three separate and stress-inducing ultrasounds.
At her first anatomy scan the technician informed her that they were unable to see her little one’s brain and feet well enough for pictures, and that a second ultrasound was needed. At the second ultrasound she was given terrifying news regarding the possibility of severe birth defects, for which, she would have to wait another few days to meet with a specialist. During her third, and final scan, after a great deal of worry, she received wonderful reassurance — everything was fine.
Some argue that experiences, such as this, may cause “emotional distancing” of a mother from her baby, as well as harmful elevated levels of stress hormones.
Sarah Buckley, M.D., states that ultrasounds may also “discount the deep internal knowledge that a mother has of her own body.” I know a mother who experienced this firsthand when she felt coerced into having an ultrasound, as the doctor suspected that she was having twins (even though her mama instincts told her otherwise). She felt that this caused a great deal of extra stress for her, and in fact, the ultrasound revealed her mama intuition was right, only one baby on board, not two!
Many mothers that I have spoken with took an active role in their decision whether or not to have ultrasound scans during pregnancy.
Here are a few of their stories. Feel free to share your own stories below!
” I opted to receive ultrasounds with both of my pregnancies because I planned to deliver at a free standing birth center, equipped to manage the more common complications, but not equipped for the rare but often life-threatening possibilities. I needed to know that my babies didn’t have holes in their hearts or bellies or spines. The only ultrasound I was practically required to obtain was the “big anatomy scan” around 20 weeks.”
“I was exposed to the Zika Virus during my second pregnancy and I pushed for an additional ultrasound around 30 weeks to allow for a quick skull measurement. I wanted to feel as prepared as possible for my desired low-risk delivery.”
“With my first pregnancy we choose to have 1 ultrasound for anatomy at 19 weeks. At the time, that was the standard way of identifying genetic abnormalities. [With my second pregnancy], we were able to have genetic testing through a simple blood draw!”
“I didn’t need a ultrasound to confirm my pregnancy or how far along I was, since we knew when I ovulated and therefore when we conceived. Also, contrary to popular belief (and sometimes doctor assertions), [I’ve read] studies don’t show any improvement in fetal outcomes when diagnostic ultrasounds are used. Sometimes moms consent to an ultrasound so that they can learn the sex of their baby, but you can also confirm your baby’s sex via a maternal blood test. Easy peasy, and less invasive.”
“During my second pregnancy, at about 8 weeks I felt pain in my abdomen and it was recommended that I have an ultrasound just in case. We determined the pain to be a normal pregnancy cyst. We also discovered a sizable fibroid, though it was not actually causing me any pain.”
I believe in the power of informed choice during pregnancy. Ultimately, I feel whether or not to have an ultrasound, and how many, is a personal and intuitive decision based on perceived benefits and risks.