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What Is a Fetal Ultrasound?

A woman holding a fetal ultrasound.
A fetal ultrasound.
Ultrasound is commonly used on pregnant women.
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  • Written By: Kasey James
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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A fetal ultrasound, also called a fetal sonogram, is a test that uses sound waves to see images of an unborn baby in the mother's womb. The ultrasound can also act as a camera and take pictures of the fetus. Ultrasounds are used throughout a pregnancy to monitor fetal development and health. Most women have ultrasounds performed during their pregnancy.

Many doctors rely on ultrasounds to see progress on the unborn baby's development. A fetal ultrasound can be used to confirm a pregnancy, get the size of the baby, and monitor the baby's organs. The doctor can tell if the fetus is growing at an average rate by looking at the sonogram screen. The ultrasound also allows the doctor to check the baby's heart, lungs, and other organs to be sure they are developing normally.

If the doctor sees an abnormality on the fetal sonogram, they can begin to diagnose a medical condition before the baby is born. The fetal ultrasound can make it possible to figure out if there are any genetic disorders or if there is an organ that is not forming properly. This early information can allow the fetus to start medical treatment in the womb, or the doctor can establish a treatment plan before the baby is born.

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Some people want to find out the sex of the baby before it arrives. A fetal ultrasound can often determine if the fetus is male or female around 20 weeks gestation. Most ultrasound technicians will not guarantee the accuracy of determining the baby's sex. If the baby is turned the wrong way or hiding in the womb, the ultrasound may not pick up on the baby's gender. Either way, most ultrasound technicians will print out pictures of the unborn baby to give to the mother.

An ultrasound machine does not use radiation and is not an invasive method to monitor a fetus during pregnancy. Ultrasounds do not have the risks that x-ray machines carry. The procedure usually only takes a few minutes and is not painful for the mother. Most mothers enjoy a fetal sonogram, as they get to see their baby in real time.

A fetal ultrasound is routine for prenatal care. Most health insurance companies will pay for ultrasounds during a woman's pregnancy. The cost of a fetal ultrasound without medical insurance can vary. Unless there are pregnancy or medical complications, most women will only have to have one to two ultrasounds during their pregnancy.

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Discuss this Article

discographer
Post 5

@turquoise-- I've heard that it's possible, but I'm not sure how small the fetus would need to be in order for the ultrasound to miss it.

I've read in a few forums about women who were in the same situation as you and had the symptoms of pregnancy despite an ultrasound showing the opposite. A woman did say that she turned out to be pregnant and the fetus was hiding behind the rib cage and couldn't be spotted on the ultrasound. It was discovered when she was hospitalized for intense back pain.

I have no idea if this story is true or if this is medically possible. You could be experiencing a false pregnancy or another health condition causing these symptoms. If you're unsure, just wait it out and see what happens and get checked out by your doctor for other possible causes of the symptoms. I personally think that the chances of a fetal ultrasound missing a fetus is kind of unlikely, but I could be wrong.

Is anyone out there a medical professional and can give an expert opinion on how dependable fetal ultrasounds are?

turquoise
Post 4

Hi, I'm wondering if it's possible for a fetal ultrasound to possibly be wrong and miss a fetus?

I've had the symptoms of pregnancy for over three weeks now and I've had a pregnancy test as well as a fetal ultrasound which came out negative. My gynecologist is not seeing a fetus even though he has said that the uterus wall is looking thicker.

I'm really confused and I still have the same symptoms. I've gained weight, have cravings and nausea and my back has started to hurt as well. I feel like I'm crazy because I'm pretty sure that a ultrasound is a dependable method. But is there any possibility that the fetus was missed in the fetal ultrasound images?

fify
Post 3

@ElizaBennett-- I'm going to have to agree with @MissDaphne on this.

I do agree that ultrasounds could be damaging to a fetus if it is overdone. But as the article mentioned, most pregnant women don't have it more than 2-3 times. So I highly doubt that there is any risk involved there.

And fetal ultrasounds are definitely important, not just emotionally but medically. There are so many possible problems that could take place during a pregnancy. The fetus could be growing in the fallopian tubes rather than settling in the womb for example. There could be a genetic disorder leading to physical issues with the child. And many of these situations allow for a treatment that could save the child and or the mother's life if it is noticed on time.

So the benefits of a fetal ultrasound definitely outweigh the associated risks. And I believe that most doctors are careful about requesting ultrasounds only when they deem necessary. So women don't even have free access to an ultrasound machine without a doctor approval and request.

MissDaphne
Post 2

@ElizaBennett - I never thought of it that way! I actually had three fetal ultrasounds with my last pregnancy, but they did all have a specific reason. I did have a subchorionic hemorrhage, like you mentioned, which was diagnosed with ultrasound. (I guess that wasn't "fetal" ultrasound since I was only six weeks.) The ultrasound was very reassuring as I really thought I might be having a miscarriage.

I had another one at 12 weeks because the physician's assistant had trouble finding the heartbeat with the Doppler (which is also an ultrasound-type device, right?). At 20 weeks I had my anatomy scan, which I would have wanted anyway but was also necessary to make sure my SC had resolved.

I think they can have a lot of emotional value. For me, it was very important to make sure baby was healthy and I did not want more invasive testing. I know that ultrasound has not been shown to improve outcomes for moms and babies, though, so I guess it's a personal decision.

ElizaBennett
Post 1

Fetal ultrasound is, indeed, routine, and most women will have at least one or two, but it's worth noting that they are not required. ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) does not specifically recommend them unless there is a specific diagnostic reason. (For instance, if mom is experiencing bleeding, ultrasound might be used to diagnose subchorionic hematoma or other issue.)

Ultrasounds have been used for decades and most people consider them to be safe, but they have never really been *proven* safe. Some moms choose to skip the fetal ultrasound pictures and avoid ultrasound as long as the baby has a good heartbeat and there are no indications of trouble.

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