One of the most anticipated moments of pregnancy is the moment you get to see that little blessing for the first time on that fuzzy monitor. He has been wrecking havoc on your hormones and it is finally the moment for so many mothers that “it becomes real.”
Today, we will be exploring ultrasound (US). You may also hear it referred to as a sonogram.
For about twelve years, I worked in an imaging department for a hospital. I am probably more familiar with ultrasound than most people but I am certainly not an expert. If, after this article, you still have questions regarding ultrasound, feel free to leave your questions in the comment section below or contact me. I have several friends who are ultrasound technologists that would I would be happy to contact with any questions that I may not have an answer to.
What is a ultrasound?
A ultrasound (US), also known as sonogram is an exam that uses sound waves to create an image of your baby. It works much the same way echolocation of bats or dolphins or radar in a submarine detects what is in front of them.
The sound waves are emitted from a probe called a transducer. The sound waves enter into your body, bounce off of the structures within your body, and return to the transducer. Depending on the material of the structure the waves are reflecting off of and how far the sound wave had to travel, the computer is able to produce a surprisingly accurate image of your uterus, placenta, and baby.
How is an ultrasound performed?
You will most likely be asked to drink a lot of water before the test. The more full your bladder, the better the exam will be. If your physician or midwife orders an ultrasound, check with the facility that will be performing the exam prior to your appointment in regard to what their protocol states. It was a common problem to have mothers arrive for an ultrasound who had not be properly prepared for the exam. This can cause frustration and additional wait time on both the patient and the facility. It is always best to check with the facility performing the exam before you take time out of your busy schedule.
There are two main types of ultrasounds during pregnancy: transabdominal and transvaginal. The transabdominal ultrasound is what you have probably seen on television. The sonographer squirts a jelly-like substance on your belly and glides the transducer over your pelvis and abdomen evaluating the baby and your internal structures.
A transvaginal ultrasound involved placing the transducer into your vagina much like a tampon. The technologist usually allows the patient to place the transducer inside her vagina and then controls it using the handle that is outside of your body.
Once you have been led back to the ultrasound room, you may be asked to remove some of your clothes. If you are having a transabdominal sonogram, you may not be asked to remove any clothing but to just expose you abdomen and pelvic area. If you are having a transvaginal exam, you will be asked to remove your pants/skirt and underwear. You may be given a hospital gown or a sheet/blanket to cover yourself. Most sonographers desire to maintain your modesty as much as possible and will do their best to keep you covered throughout your exam. If at any time you feel uncomfortable, let the sonographer know you would like another blanket or sheet.
This is a very intimate exam and the sonographer will do their best to help you feel as comfortable as possible. There is a slight chance that the sonographer may be a male. This is rare but does occur at times. If this is the case, it is highly likely that another technologist will be asked to be present in the room as a chaperone. This is not only for your safety but the safety of the technologist as well.
If you would like someone to accompany you in the exam, your husband, doula, or another friend, be sure to let the technologist know before the exam begins. Often the ultrasound room is quite small so it is best to only invite one other person to be with you.
Once the exam begins, the lights will be turned off or dimmed for better visualization of the monitor. You will hear strange sounds as the transducer is moved. The technologist may not say much. Do not take this as a concern or rudeness. The radiologist who will be reading and interpreting the exam will rely heavily upon what the sonographer reports. She is likely just concentrating and making sure she gets good measurements of everything.
At some point, the sonographer may point out certain structures, show you your baby, and let you hear his heart beat. However, this is neither required or should be expected. The job of an ultrasound technologist can be very complicated when it comes to what she can share with you legally. If there is a question as to the health of your baby or any other complication, she would be putting her job and even her license to practice on the line by sharing any interpretation of the exam with you.
You may request images to keep for yourself. Most facilities will be happy to print you images for a keepsake. Some facilities even have the ability to record video. Again, this depends on the facility’s policies, the type of ultrasound machine being used, and the supplies they keep on hand. Even if the facility does not have the ability to print a picture for you, most technologists will allow you to take a photo of the monitor while the exam is in process.
Once the exam is completed, she will give you a towel or washcloth to clean the jelly off of your body. She will allow you to use the restroom and then get dressed.
The radiologist may come speak to you or may not. It really depends on the facility’s policy, staffing, and medical situation. Typically, the sonographer will print a few images for the radiologist and then go give report to him. He will then dictate a report into a transcription program. The completed and signed report will then be faxed, emailed, or called into the ordering physician’s office. It is then the ordering physician’s responsibility to contact you with the results.
What does an ultrasound show?
A sonogram shows the structures of the baby, your uterus, placenta, and umbilical cord. It can determine if the baby is developing at the right pace, estimate due dated, check for multiples, check the heart rate and development, determine the placement of the placenta, determine the position of the baby, estimate baby’s weight, determine the baby’s gender, evaluate the level of amniotic fluid, and guide physicians in other examinations and treatments.
Ultrasound can evaluate for several complications or disabilities as well, including: ectopic pregnancy, Down Syndrome, heart defects, other structural abnormalities and congenital malformations, and any intrauterine or pelvic abnormalities in the mother (placenta previa, tumors, etc).
Many women have their first sonogram at about ten weeks. At twenty weeks you will have another, typically. Gender can often be determined at twenty weeks. Let the sonographer know if you want to know the gender at the beginning of this exam. Discovering the gender matters much upon the position of the baby in the womb. If baby isn’t cooperating, it may be impossible to be sure of the gender.
What are the risks and benefits of having an ultrasound?
Ultrasound is a relatively safe exam. Unlike x-rays, ultrasound does not using ionizing radiation. Before ultrasound became popular for evaluating a baby in the womb, x-rays were used to check for positioning prior to birth. My mother was x-rayed a week before she had me. This has become so extraordinarily rare that it is considered a practice of the past. Ultrasound does not carry the risks that radiation does. However, ultrasound is still a relatively new technology and it is unsure how exactly it may affect a body, especially a developing child. This is why most care providers and insurance agencies limit the number of ultrasounds preformed during a pregnancy and why only licensed technologists should be performing the exams. No solid evidence or studies have proven ultrasound to be dangerous to the baby but it is always better to verge on the side of caution.
One risk with sonography is the margin of error, especially in estimating a baby’s due date and size. Many women have had unnecessary inductions and cesarean sections due to errors in the estimation of the due date and baby size. Talk with your physician or midwife as to how he/she interprets these estimations.
The benefits of having an ultrasound is that it can detect complications. This may not change your pregnancy and birth plans, but it may help you prepare for certain situations. Some complications may change your birth plan but it will help you develop a plan with your care provider and help you mentally and emotionally prepare for the change.
Ultrasound is a relatively safe technology and can help determine malformations or other complications that may change the birth plan or give you time to prepare for a different life than what you had imagined. Even though no serious risk factors have ever been proven to result from ultrasound use, it is wise to limit the use to only what is necessary.
We are blessed to live in a time where technology like ultrasound is available when necessary. Make sure you talk with your health care provider and your insurance company as to what kind and how many sonograms are recommended for your healthy pregnancy.
If you are in the Denton, TX area and are interested in hiring a doula for your birth experience, contact me today to schedule a free consultation. If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in checking out my Exams, Tests, Interventions, and Treatments Resource Page.