Pregnancy & Newborns
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Fetal Ultrasound

What is fetal ultrasound?

Fetal ultrasound is a test used during pregnancy. It creates an image of the baby in the mother's womb (uterus). It’s a noninvasive way to check the health of an unborn baby. During a fetal ultrasound, the baby’s heart, head, and spine are measured. The test may be done either through the mother's abdomen (transabdominal) or vagina (transvaginal).

There are several types of fetal ultrasound:

  • Standard ultrasound. The test uses sound waves to create 2-dimensional images on a computer screen.
  • Doppler ultrasound. This test shows the movement of blood through the umbilical cord between the baby and the placenta.
  • 3-dimensional ultrasound. This type shows a 3-dimensional, life-like image of an unborn baby.

Ultrasound uses an electronic wand called a transducer to send and receive sound waves. No radiation is used during the procedure. The transducer is moved over the abdomen, and sound waves move through the skin, muscle, bone, and fluids at different speeds. The sound waves bounce off the baby like an echo and return to the transducer. The transducer converts the sound waves into an electronic image on a computer screen.

Why might I need fetal ultrasound?

Fetal ultrasound is a routine part of prenatal care in the U.S. This is because it’s a low risk procedure that gives important information. The general health of a pregnancy can be easily checked. A routine prenatal ultrasound can check for defects or other problems in:

  • Abdomen and stomach
  • Arms, legs, and other body parts
  • Back of the neck
  • Head and brain
  • Heart chambers and valves
  • Kidneys
  • Placenta placement
  • Spine
  • Umbilical cord
  • Urinary bladder

A fetal ultrasound can also show:

  • If a woman is pregnant with multiple babies
  • The gestational age of a baby
  • Where to place the needle during removal of a sample of amniotic fluid (amniocentesis)

Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to advise a fetal ultrasound.

What are the risks of fetal ultrasound?

All procedures have some risks. The risks of this procedure include:

  • Mild discomfort from of the transducer on the abdomen or in the vagina
  • Reaction to a latex covering for the transducer, if you have a latex allergy

In some cases, an ultrasound may appear to show a problem that is not there (false-positive). The test can also miss a problem that is there (false-negative). In some cases, additional testing may be needed after a fetal ultrasound.

Fetal ultrasound is sometimes offered in nonmedical settings. This is done as a way to give keepsake images or videos for parents. In these cases, it’s possible for untrained staff to misread the images and give parents incorrect information. Make sure to have fetal ultrasound done by trained medical staff. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions.

Your risks may vary depending on your general health and other factors. Ask your healthcare provider which risks apply most to you. Talk with him or her about any concerns you have.

How do I get ready for fetal ultrasound?

Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have. You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully. Ask questions if anything is not clear.

Tell your healthcare provider if you:

  • Are sensitive to or allergic to any medicines, latex, tape, or anesthetic medicines (local and general)
  • Take any medicines, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements

Make sure to:

  • Stop taking certain medicines before the procedure, if instructed by your healthcare provider
  • Plan to have someone drive you home from the hospital
  • Follow any other instructions your healthcare provider gives you

Drink several glasses of water before the procedure. You will need to have a full bladder. This helps give clearer images.

What happens during a fetal ultrasound?

You may have your procedure as an outpatient. This means you go home the same day. Or it may be done as part of a longer stay in the hospital. The way the procedure is done may vary. It depends on your condition and your healthcare provider's methods. In most cases, the procedure will follow this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove your clothes. You will be given a hospital gown to wear. You may be asked to remove jewelry or other objects.
  2. You will lie on an exam table, either on your back or on your side.
  3. For a transabdominal procedure, a clear gel will be placed on the skin of your belly (abdomen). The transducer will be moved over the area and pressed against the skin.
  4. For a transvaginal ultrasound, you will need to lie on your back. Your feet will be in stirrups and your knees apart.
  5. A vaginal transducer probe will be covered with a sterile cover. A lubricant will be put on the probe. The probe will be inserted into the vagina. The technician will move the probe around to capture a series of images. The probe will then be removed.

What happens after fetal ultrasound?

You will be given tissue to wipe off excess gel. You can go home shortly after the test. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about the results. Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 10/25/2013
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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