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Pregnancy 101: Understanding the Ultrasound

Posted Jun 12 2012 12:00am

"When is your ultrasound?" This is a question many expectant moms receive when their bellies start to show. Almost like a rite of passage, the is almost a given in the modern pregnancy, offering moms-to-be a peek inside the womb and a chance to learn the gender of their growing baby, if they want to know ahead of time. Yet, many moms have no idea how this common test works, or why they should consider having one performed.

How Ultrasounds Work

Ultrasounds send sound waves into the body to gather images of the growing baby. The sound waves bounce off of the baby and back to the transducer, or probe, where they are translated into an image on the computer screen. The technician uses a specially designed keyboard to capture the images on the CPU, and the images display on the computer screen for the technician and the mom to see. A gel between the transducer and the mom's belly helps transmit the sound waves.

Procedural Risks

While there are virtually no associated with ultrasounds, it is possible that the procedure can have some adverse effects on the body. Ultrasounds can heat tissue, resulting in the production of small bubbles of gas in tissues and bodily fluids, known as cavitation. This can be avoided by prudent use of ultrasounds, and regular of ultrasound machinery. Other than this possibility, expectant mothers can rest assured that this is a safe procedure.

Types of Ultrasounds

While most ultrasounds involve a transducer rubbing across the mom's belly, doctors actually have a few different  of fetal ultrasound scans they can use. The transvaginal ultrasound, for example, is used in early pregnancy and involves a transducer placed in the vagina to gather images of the baby, fallopian tubes and placenta. Doctors can also use a 3-D ultrasound to collect images of the baby in amazing detail. These can specifically help when the doctor needs to plan treatment for facial abnormalities or neural tube defects, and many parents-to-be appreciate the photo-like quality of the images from these 3-D scans.

Sometimes, if a woman's obstetrician suspects a problem with the baby, he or she may order a specialized ultrasound. These in-depth ultrasounds use specialized equipment to gather more details about the baby, but these scans still use sound waves to capture images of the growing baby. Other options that doctors have when they are concerned about the baby include a fetal echocardiogram, which takes images of the baby's heart, and a Doppler ultrasound, which provides details about the baby's circulation.

Who Needs an Ultrasound?

Most pregnant women are offered an ultrasound at some point in their pregnancy, typically around the midway point, and most OB-GYN offices have an ultrasound service either on site or nearby to offer their patients. For moms without any risks in their pregnancies, an ultrasound is a voluntary procedure, as it is not considered medically necessary, but most doctors will recommend at least one to screen for possible abnormalities. Some doctors also choose to do an ultrasound early in the pregnancy to confirm viability of the baby and determine the gestational age of the pregnancy.

Ultrasounds can also serve to provide a doctor with details about a baby and the pregnancy when a mother has complications. For example, a mother who has a placental abnormality may receive more ultrasounds towards the end of the pregnancy to ensure that the baby is growing properly and the placenta is healthy. Not only does this help the doctor determine if an early delivery would be best for the baby and the mom, but it also gives the mom peace of mind that her baby is doing well in spite of any potential concerns.

What to Expect During an Ultrasound

During an ultrasound, the expectant mom will go to an ultrasound room that has an examining table, computer screen and large computer screen on the wall. She will be asked to lie down on the examining table and expose her belly. The technician will place a gel substance on the mom's belly, then slide the transducer across the abdomen to begin capturing images.

At first, the mom may not be able to distinguish what she is seeing on the screen. The technician will point out various body parts as the exam progresses. During the scan, the technician will check all of the baby's vital organs, take measurements of different parts of the body to determine if the baby is growing properly and screen for abnormalities like a cleft palate or kidney problems. Most technicians will try to print a picture of the baby's head or face for the mom to take home as a keepsake.

Some moms find that they cannot "see" their babies on the ultrasound, even with the technician's explanations. This should not be a cause for concern. To the untrained, inexperienced eye, the images on an ultrasound can be difficult to distinguish, particularly if the baby is positioned in a way that does not lend itself well to clear ultrasound imaging.

For many moms, the ultrasound is one of the highlights of their pregnancy, giving them an intimate look on a normally hidden space inside the womb. For practitioners, these scans give the chance to screen for potential problems and verify that the baby is developing properly. These benefits make ultrasounds an important part of quality prenatal care.

 

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