Prenatal Peeks

The latest high-tech ways to capture those moments that matter

By Amy Newman

Baby’s first appearance on the ultrasound monitor is one of pregnancy’s most anticipated moments. But ultrasounds do far more than let parents-to-be know whether to focus their energies on choosing boy or girl names. From accurate gestational dating to identifying potential risks to mom and baby, ultrasound provides doctors with a wealth of information about that bundle-to-be.

Making waves

Developed more than 30 years ago, ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to view inside the body, giving doctors a glimpse not only of the baby, but of fetal movement as well, says Jennifer Sydnam, RDMS, RVT (R), a sonographer with Real Time II in Wasilla. This helps doctors identify potential health issues early, and helps parents better visualize – and plan for – those issues prior to baby’s arrival.

“Obstetrical ultrasound can be used to confirm pregnancy, screen for anomalies (and) check fetal well-being and growth,” she explains. “Because ultrasound images are captured in real-time, movement of the (baby’s) internal organs, such as the beating of a heart and blood flowing through the blood vessels, can be seen.”

The ability to identify potential issues early has increased in the past 10 years, thanks to 3D and 4D imaging, Jennifer says. Certain anomalies, such as cleft palate or club foot, are easier to identify with 3D imaging, while 4D – which is 3D in motion – can identify problems with movement (such as those associated with spina bifida, where the spinal cord is improperly developed, or other neurological issues) or with the baby’s heart.

Ultrasound can also identify problems with the mother, including ectopic pregnancy, uterine malformations, blood clots or placental issues, says Scott Pickett, RDMS, RVT, a sonographer with Advanced Sonograms of Alaska in Anchorage. First-trimester ultrasounds (occurring between weeks seven and nine) can confirm the presence of multiples (twins, triplets or more), which will automatically place the pregnancy at a higher-than-normal risk for complications, requiring special care and monitoring. The ultrasound during this period also helps accurately pinpoint baby’s gestational age and the estimated date of delivery, he adds.

Unlike X-rays, ultrasound doesn’t use ionizing radiation to capture images, meaning it’s safer for mom and baby, Jennifer says. While there is the potential for sound waves to elevate the temperature of fetal and maternal tissue, studies have shown that ultrasound’s benefits far outweigh the already low potential risks, especially when “used prudently by appropriately trained healthcare providers.”

And manufacturers constantly work to further decrease those risks, Scott adds. Obstetrical ultrasound machines are automatically set to the lowest power setting, and no soundwaves are emitted when the ultrasound image is frozen on the screen, further minimizing exposure.

Bonding with baby

Although its primary purpose is as a diagnostic tool, there’s an undeniable emotional element that accompanies every ultrasound.

“Families are literally brought to tears when they are able to see the baby moving and the heart beat,” Jennifer says. “We have done Facetime with family members who could not be present, and the reaction is heartwarming.”

“It’s powerful, it’s visually powerful,” Scott agrees. Three- and four-dimensional images have increased those feelings, he says, transforming what in the past was an indistinguishable blob into an image so clear, even 3-year-olds can identify what’s on the screen.

Anchorage mom Andrea Corbin, who gave birth to her third daughter Ivy in July, noticed the difference in this ultrasound experience compared to those with her older daughters, Lina, 10, and Addy, 7.

“The amount of info they gathered, and detail of the photos and videos they viewed, was amazing,” she says. “At 12 weeks, they made an accurate guess on the gender.”

That detail, coupled with the ability to see their sister moving on the ultrasound screen, really helped her daughters, Andrea says.

“They got so excited for the ultrasounds,” she explains. “There was so much detail, they could easily identify the parts of her body, and even recognize that she was likely to look like Addy when she was born, which she does!”

Andrea’s husband, Rendon, said the images and videos had an impact on him as well.

“I think they made me feel more connected,” he says. “As a guy, we don’t feel the baby moving, so seeing (the images) made it more real.”

The future of ultrasound

With advances in ultrasound technology that make identifying fetal anomalies easier, the underlying goal of the sonographer’s job has changed accordingly, or at least the way he goes about it, Scott says.

“When I first started, an anatomical survey was 25 pictures, maybe 30,” he says. “Today, it’s somewhere between 60 and 70.”

That’s because sonographers have increasingly been able to identify, as early as 12 or 13 weeks, fetal issues that in the past weren’t identifiable until the 20-week anatomy scan, Scott says with amazement. And as the technology continues to improve, so too will sonographers’ ability to identify a great number of potential issues earlier than ever dreamed possible. Already, Scott says, Advanced Sonograms has had to upgrade its equipment every two years, rather than every four, to keep up with the latest advancements.

But no matter how advanced the technology becomes, Scott says, it will never replace the experienced technician capable of capturing images from a constantly moving (and not always cooperative) target. And that’s fine with him.

“I feel lucky to do what I do,” he says. “It’s a great time in people’s lives.”