Ultrasounds are a valuable medical tool that provide doctors and parents alike with vital information about the health of unborn fetuses such as growth, age, position, amniotic fluid levels, and even signs of possible birth defects. But for many families, ultrasounds also have sentimental meaning as well as entertainment value. With advances in 3D and 4D imaging within the womb, more women are opting for elective “keepsake” ultrasounds, which are typically administered by untrained technicians outside of professional medical facilities.
Since the mid 90’s, commercial ultrasound businesses have offered sometimes hour long ultrasound sessions with expecting mothers in order to produce pictures and videos of the unborn fetuses. While the images and videos they produce may become precious mementos to the family, the FDA has repeatedly discouraged the public against them in multiple consumer updates over the years.
It’s true that ultrasound imaging is the most widely used medical imaging method employed by healthcare professionals during pregnancy, and that when prescribed and performed correctly by a healthcare professional, they are considered generally safe. But the FDA has emphasized time and time again that we do not fully understand the long term effects of these sessions on the child or mother, and therefore they should be limited to times when they are medically necessary.
There are usually two parts to these tests when they are being performed for medical purposes. First, there is the fetal ultrasound that provides real-time images of the fetus. Second, there is a doppler ultrasound heartbeat monitor that lets you listen to the heartbeat of the fetus. The FDA has warned consumers that, “Both are prescription devices designed to be used by trained healthcare professionals. They are not intended for over-the-counter (OTC) sale or use.”
The main concerns about these commercial ultrasounds stem from the heating effects produced during the procedure. Ultrasounds slightly heat any exposed tissue, which can produce very small bubbles, also known as cavitation. The long-term effects of this tissue heating and cavitation are not known, which is why it is recommended that they are only performed when there is a medical need, a prescription from a medical professional, and a trained operator performing the procedure. The most controversial offering by these commercial businesses consequently are the fetal videos because there simply are no potential medical benefits.
Some doctors also worry that these sessions could provide women with a false sense of security. The technicians running the sessions and the pregnant women observing them have no idea what to look for in regards to the actual health of the baby. In other words, these sessions are purely for vanity. As a precaution, some places do require clients to provide proof that they are under the care of an OB GYN, but many women still come in asking for advice, only to find that the operators are not able to give any.
So why are women still choosing to go ahead with these sessions? Many say these sessions help to promote bonding between the parents and developing fetus. They claim that the videos provide a more tangible connection for them than the still images their doctors provide. Seeing their child in 3 dimensions basically makes them feel more real. It is understandable why someone might prefer a better quality image or even video to the chalky, black-and-white pictures produced by 2-D ultrasounds, but not at the cost of potential risk to the child and/or mother.
Another contributor to their continued popularity are mothers and families simply following the trends they see online. Women have been known to go as far as to throw “ultrasound parties” to announce the sex of their child, and funny or odd in-utero images have a history of going viral. Sometimes all it takes is seeing your friends and fellow lamaze class attendees posting their videos to make you want one of your own.
With all this in mind, medical professionals still advise against “keepsake” ultrasounds, and hope that women can take advantage of the opportunities for bonding that are routinely provided during medically relevant points of prenatal care.
With these sessions being unregulated by a medical professional, there is no control over how long a single imaging session will last, how many sessions will take place, or whether the ultrasound equipment will be operated properly, all of which increases the potential for harm to the fetus and mother. In contrast, according to Shahram Vaezy, Ph.D., an FDA biomedical engineer “Proper use of ultrasound equipment pursuant to a prescription ensures that a woman will receive professional care that contributes to her health and to the health of her fetus.”
The FDA first spoke out against non-medical ultrasounds in 1994. Since then, they have regularly reminded parents, healthcare providers, and businesses of the unknown risks. In 2005, the issue was reignited when Tom Cruise told Barbara Walters during an interview that he and pregnant Katie Holmes had purchased their own ultrasound machine for home use. The following year, California legislature tried to pass a bill restricting the sale of ultrasound equipment to healthcare practitioners, but the bill was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2009, Connecticut became the first state to successfully ban the practice.
Many respected medical groups have come out against commercial ultrasounds over the years, including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, and the American Pregnancy Association.