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FDA Issues Warning Against Keepsake Ultrasounds During Pregnancy

Katlyn Joy |29, December 2014


It's become a milestone of pregnancy, the moment when you see baby on a screen and have an image to take home and share with family and friends. These first baby pics are supposed to be medically necessary, to check on the baby's position, development or other aspects of pregnancy such as the level of amniotic fluid or the position of the placenta in regards to the cervix for instance.

Ultrasound technology brings us many benefits in today's pregnancy and birth situations. It allows us to confirm pregnancies, identify multiples, find birth defects or other problems that can either be corrected in utero or prepared for once baby is born. It can even tell us if it's necessary to augment labor.

However, for most of us, it's just a precious moment when you see that little noggin, and can actually see baby moving, kicking feet, holding the cord, or even sucking a thumb. It's also the moment we generally find out the gender of the baby we are expecting, which enables us to better bond at times, and at least better prepare for the baby. We know what clothes to buy, what names to look at and what color scheme fits the nursery.

Yet ultrasound hasn't been proven a totally safe, benign process. When used to obtain information that is vital for the health of mother or child, the risks and benefits are weighed. When couples seek images of their baby for keepsakes or mere curiosity, the risks definitely outweigh the benefits.

In that line of thinking, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against keepsake images this December 2014.

"Although there is a lack of evidence of any harm due to ultrasound imaging and heartbeat monitors, prudent use of these devices by trained health care providers is important. Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it can also produce very small bubbles (cavitation) in some tissues," said Shahram Vaezy, Ph.D., an FDA biomedical engineer.

The FDA is also issuing a warning against the fetal Doppler heartbeat monitors sold to consumers as well. There simply isn't enough information available or studies done to provide any solid peace of mind regarding the safety of these instruments in casual use by non-medical personnel.

Because the long term effects of the heating and cavitation of ultrasound waves is not known, it is imperative that only medically trained professionals use the equipment when deemed medically necessary.

"Proper use of ultrasound equipment pursuant to a prescription ensures that pregnant women will receive professional care that contributes to their health and to the health of their babies," said Vaezy.

However, with commercial 3D and 4D ultrasound images, parents routinely pay for keepsake photos and videos of their baby, sometimes exposing their unborn child to an hour or so of such sessions. These people are not medically trained, and it cannot be assured that they are even operating the equipment properly. Additionally, something could be observed in a scan that may have serious implications, or only appear to, and the videographer is unable to render any medical advice or reassurance to the parents.

The FDA acknowledges that parents enjoy having these images of babies to keep, and also just to view in real time, in order to feel closeness and bonding with their unborn babies. However, the risks are simply not known at this time, so should only occur in a medical setting under a prescription.

The FDA is not the only naysayer in the medical community, either. The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also are against commercial 3D and 4D imagery of fetuses, citing potential unknown dangers. There simply isn't any research to validate such routine use of the technology.

If you are anxious to get a sonogram or ultrasound, discuss with your doctor when he or she typically uses the test and for what reason. Most doctors do a scan once or twice in pregnancy for general checks on development and growth. Sometimes additional scans will be required, such as when a problem is detected with baby or the uterine environment, or if the baby doesn't seem to be growing as expected, or the baby is not in an ideal position for birth and you are late in pregnancy.

In those cases, the unknown risks are outweighed by the vital information that can be potentially lifesaving.

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Guest Jan 8, 2015 01:41:12 AM ET

In my day, the doctor's used x-rays to see if the baby was in the right position to be born. Thank God, for ultra sound pics. Though I do not approve of using them for willy nilly photographs, for goodness sake! An ultra sound scan of my gall bladder turned a part of the breast bone into an outward position on me. I thought I was in deep trouble, when I discovered it next day, and was out of town at the time. So I went to a doctor who was a stranger to me. He told me it was nothing to worry about. It still sticks out. Ugh.

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