Keeping Ultrasound in its Place
By Wendy Priesnitz
For many parents-to-be, one of the
frustrating aspects of pregnancy is the lack of a window into their unborn
child’s world. There is a technological fix for that, in the form of
ultrasound or sonograms. First used in obstetrics in the middle of the
twentieth century, they are now a routine part of prenatal treatment and
pregnancy scans can be performed to detect developmental defects before
In recent years, some clinics are
offering ultrasound scans without a doctor’s order in order to determine
babies’ gender and to create keepsake photos and even 3-D movies of fetal
development. This non-medical practice is being discouraged by governments
and medical associations.
The U.S. FDA says that ultrasound
heats tissues slightly, and ultrasounds can also produce very small bubbles
in some tissues, which is called cavitation. “The long-term effects of
tissue heating and cavitation are not known. Therefore, ultrasound scans
should be done only when there is a medical need,” the agency advises. It
also says that ultrasounds administered by untrained technicians might
reveal a complication or anomaly that is misinterpreted.
Research interest in this topic is
increasing. A study was
published online in September of 2016 in the journal Autism Research.
The authors, led by Pierre D. Mourad, PhD, University of Washington,
Seattle, reported that early prenatal diagnostic ultrasound has been linked to
variability in symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children with
specific genetic vulnerabilities. The authors note that these results “add
weight to ongoing concerns” expressed by the US Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) about the nonmedical use of diagnostic ultrasound during pregnancy.
Several organizations have also
released statements regarding keepsake ultrasound.
The European Committee for Medical
Ultrasound has said: “The embryonic period is known to be particularly
sensitive to any external influences. Until further scientific information
is available, investigations should be carried out with careful control of
output levels and exposure times. With increasing mineralization of the
fetal bone as the fetus develops, the possibility of heating fetal bone
increases. The user should prudently limit exposure of critical structures
such as the fetal skull or spine during Doppler studies (a type of
ultrasound that detects movement, direction and speed, such as fetal
The American Pregnancy Association
states: “The ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure that, when used
properly, has not demonstrated fetal harm. However, the long term effects of
repeated and/or lengthy ultrasound exposures on the fetus are not fully
The Society of Obstetricians and
Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) and the Canadian Association of Radiologists
issued a warning against “entertainment” ultrasounds in a joint policy
statement, warning that every ultrasound involves exposes the fetus to
“targeted energy,” and carries a theoretical risk of some harm.
So it is probably safer to keep
that window closed and use your imagination until birth.
Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor. She has been a journalist
for over forty years and is the author of thirteen books.