Today, expecting parents have access to the greatest prenatal care and technology of any generation before them. Doctors can diagnose birth defects and abnormalities. In some cases, they can even intervene when a situation calls for it. Perhaps the most commonly used technology is ultrasound. Doctors use ultrasound imaging to check on things inside the womb, to make sure a growing fetus is developing properly, to determine whether there is enough amniotic fluid, and to confirm the number of babies growing inside the uterus.

Parents love ultrasound for its ability to give them a glimpse of what their new arrival might look like, as well as to reassure them that their pregnancy is progressing normally and that their baby is healthy, active and strong. It is a memorable moment to “see” your baby for the first time, and usually, you will be given printouts of the images to take home.

What is Ultrasound Imaging?

All ultrasounds use sound waves to create a picture. A transducer (a wand-like tool) is moved across your belly or inserted into your vagina to send sound waves through your body. A gel is applied to the area to help the transducer transmit sound waves. These sound waves bounce back and are collected by the transducer, and a computer translates them into an image.
Many parents are familiar with the flat image, black and white 2d baby ultrasound, but newer technologies have emerged in recent decades, giving rise to 3d and 4d ultrasounds.

What is a 3D Ultrasound?

A 3d ultrasound shows a more complete picture of your baby, and the resulting image tends to look more like a photograph than the traditional 2d method. This is because multiple two-dimensional images are taken from varying angles and then assembled to create a three-dimensional image. In a 3d sonogram, you will be able to see your baby’s facial features, gender, and other details, such as whether or not he has a head full of hair.

While not part of routine prenatal care, a 3d ultrasound is commonly used for:
* confirming your due date
* checking for adequate amniotic fluid
* measuring your baby’s size
* assessing for potential birth defects, such as cleft palate

What is a 4d Ultrasound?

A 4d ultrasound uses the same image processing as the 3d method, but it creates a live effect, like a movie, by parsing a series of images over time. This lends a video-like quality to your 4d sonogram, allowing you to see your baby doing things such as blinking his eyes, sucking his thumb, and yawning.

4d ultrasounds can be used for:
* seeing your baby’s heartbeat
* seeing the movement of other organs
* seeing blood flow within the baby’s body

What’s luck got to do with it?

The quality of the image and precisely what you will be able to see depends on quite a bit of luck. Your baby will need to be in a good position with plenty of fluid surrounding him for the ultrasound to show clear, detailed renderings. An experienced technician might be able to use certain techniques for getting your baby to cooperate in the case that he or she is not facing in a direction showing his facial features and other desired characteristics. This is why it is so important to use a trusted sonographer trained in fetal ultrasound. He or she will do their best to ensure that both you and your doctor can see the images of your baby that you want with minimal stress to the baby.

What about safety?

Many parents wonder about the effects of ultrasound technology on a developing fetus, and rightly so. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that ultrasounds should be used carefully and only for medical purposes. While there are no known risks to pregnant women associated with ultrasound, it is recommended that ultrasounds only be performed by qualified medical staff, and only when medically necessary.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that, while ultrasound imaging has an excellent safety record, it can affect the body through the form of energy it uses. The waves emitted can slightly heat body tissues, which can create small pockets of gas in body fluids and tissues. Long-term effects of this are as yet unknown. Because of this, the FDA recommends that ultrasound be used strictly for medical purpose and performed only by knowledgeable medical personnel. They discourage the use of outside parties for keepsake photos and videos, as well as the use of in-home Doppler ultrasound tools, which are purported to pick up the sound of your baby’s heartbeat. Using these can expose the fetus to unsafe, prolonged energy levels.

What does it cost?

Because 3d and 4d ultrasounds are considered elective procedures, they are not usually covered by health insurance. An exception to this is your doctor has a medically sound reason to order one. Many doctors offer them as a courtesy to expecting parents at an additional fee over the cost of routine prenatal care and delivery. Costs can vary widely, depending on where you have the procedure done. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150.

Boutique ultrasound businesses offer an array of packages which include printed photos and video of your session to have for keepsakes. Prices vary for these services, as do the skill levels of technicians, so if you opt for one of these, research your options locally before scheduling an appointment.