Some pregnant women like the idea of connecting to their unborn baby through ultrasound so much that they have "for fun" ultrasounds, either two dimensional or "4D" with three dimensional pictures that also move. Are these keepsake ultrasounds harmless fun, or are there hidden dangers?
What are keepsake ultrasounds?
Keepsake ultrasounds are just what they appear to be a nice image of your growing fetus that expectant parents can look at to connect with their baby prenatally, to show to grandparents and other relatives, and to keep in a photo album for later on. Keepsake ultrasounds differ from medical ultrasounds that you may receive at the hospital or OBGYN's office.
These "for fun" ultrasounds are primarily carried out for private sentimental reasons, and they can be obtained commercially through "shops". For fun ultrasounds aim to meet the wishes of the expectant parents, which is usually a cute picture and a video (actually, a series of 3D images pasted one after the other, which is called 4D ultrasound).
It is pretty normal to want to have a look at your unborn baby, but how safe is this practice? Unsafe enough for the FDA, Food and Drug Administration, apparently. They advise pregnant women to steer clear of ultrasounds not done for medical reasons. The FDA website's page that explains their view of for fun ultrasounds includes a quote from Robert Phillips, Ph.D, a physicist who works for the Food and Drug Administration.
He says: "Although there are no known risks of ultrasound imaging and heartbeat monitors, the radiation associated with them can produce effects on the body. When ultrasound enters the body, it heats the tissues slightly. In some cases, it can also produce small pockets of gas in body fluids or tissues." "No risk" and "radiation can produce effects on the body" seems to be a little contradictory. What is that about heating tissues, anyway? Ultrasound is actually used therapeutically to help people with sports injuries heal, through the heat it emits. These are different frequencies than used in diagnostic ultrasound for pregnancy.
There is currently not enough research to determine if pregnancy ultrasound could harm a fetus at all, and the benefits of diagnostic ultrasound are generally considered to outweigh any potential risks. Still, the World Health Organization and a study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine found concerns fetuses tend to move away from the ultrasound transducer, and excessive exposure may increase the risk of birth defects. What is known is that longer periods of placing an ultrasound transducer in one spot cause tissues to be heater more. Trained ultrasound techs, or OBGYNs, know all about these potential risks and have been trained to minimize even theoretical risk by moving the transducer from one spot to another quickly, and using the right angles. People working at "for fun" ultrasound places may be less qualified and more profit-orientated. This is reason enough to avoid them.
Why ultrasound during pregnancy
The vast majority of pregnant women living in developed countries have at least one ultrasound during pregnancy. When carried out by a trained professional as part of the woman's prenatal care, these diagnostic ultrasounds have numerous benefits. Most healthy parents are most excited about the possibility of finding out whether their baby is a boy or a girl, but that's only a fringe benefit. An ultrasound can check the gestational age of a baby, assess whether it is growing at the right rate and in the right proportions, and diagnose visually obvious birth defects or diseases.
It can check for twins or higher multiples, locate the placenta (if it is in the wrong place, vaginal birth becomes impossible), a big baby, and much more. Ultrasound can definitely be a valuable diagnostic tool. It's also one that was not designed for fun, and should not be used as such. Ultrasounds should be used with caution, when there is a medical reason.