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Ultrasound Scans & Pregnancy: How Do They Work?

December 16, 2019

There is a moment of awe as you watch the ultrasound scan. The image on the monitor shifts periodically, measured movements. As the form moves, features start to take shape. You can make out the early forms of part of the body, head, and a tiny heartbeat. Life is taking shape inside of your body and you can barely wrap your mind around it.

The ultrasound scan is a vital step during pregnancy. As technology continues to make monumental strides, so too does the ultrasound. It is capable of relaying concise information that could dramatically alter the course of your pregnancy. Read on to learn more about ultrasounds and what they mean to your pregnancy and health care.

What is an ultrasound?

An ultrasound is a medical imaging procedure that will create images in real time of the area being examined. Unlike CT scans, ultrasounds do not give off ionizing radiation, meaning there is little risk involved in the procedure. These images can reveal a great deal about the soft tissue in your body, including internal organs and, more importantly, your developing child. 

Images are used to determine if there are any abnormalities inside of soft tissue. Scans can shine light on blockages in arteries, as well as organs. Doctors can use these scans to properly diagnose issues that are not visible on outside surfaces. They can also serve the purpose of monitoring a growing fetus.

Types of ultrasound imaging

There are multiple different types of ultrasounds. Many depend on the location of the body being scanned. Pelvic, abdominal, and transvaginal ultrasound exams are all specific to different locations of the body. Doppler ultrasounds look primarily at blood vessels to evaluate blood flow.

This article focuses on the Obstetric ultrasound imaging. This method is used during pregnancy to monitor the fetus and periodically perform health checkups. They help to alert doctors and mothers of any structure or developmental issues early on.

How do ultrasound tests work?

Ultrasounds create images using a simple, non-invasive technique. A wand-like object called the transducer is moved across the area being inspected. Then, the transducer sends high frequency sound waves into the body. These sound waves echo and are reflected back to the transducer.

Using this information, the transducer produces electrical signals that are used to determine the distance between the transducer and the soft tissue it reflected off. With this information, 2D images are generated that display the tissue in question.

This technique is perfect for capturing images of developing babies. The sound waves bounce off the baby’s soft tissue in order to create images of the womb. This will give you the best first look at your developing baby.

What an ultrasound exam reveals about your baby

There is a lot of information that expecting mothers can glean from their ultrasound. First and foremost, the ultrasound is used to confirm your pregnancy. The scan is meant to show if there is a live developing fetus in your body, which will verify what other tests suggest.

The ultrasound is also a great way to learn the number of eggs that were fertilized. Cases where two or more fetuses are developing are generally confirmed with an ultrasound, allowing the parents to make the necessary lifestyle changes multiple babies would require. The doctor will also be able to tell the positioning of the fetuses to ensure there will be no issues.

This procedure is also a way to determine the gender of the baby. Doctors will be able to review the images (usually in the second trimester at the earliest) in order to see early signs of genitalia forming. Determining the gender in this fashion is almost always accurate, however, there are cases from time to time where the information is incorrect. Of course, parents may opt out of being told the gender if they would rather be surprised at birth.

The placement and positioning of one or more fetuses is valuable information to have. The position can inform doctors if the baby is likely to come out bottom first or head first, allowing them to develop a plan for delivery. They will also be able to tell the positioning of the placenta and if it is getting enough blood flow.

Perhaps the greatest benefit yielded from ultrasounds is scanning for abnormalities or defects. Doctors will gain insight to early signs of developmental issues, such as spina bifida, an enlarged heart, or kidney problems. Doctors will also be able to tell if there are any physical abnormalities in the baby.

In general, the ultrasound is used as a tool to monitor the development of the child. It will help make sure there will be no issues during delivery. It will also give the doctors a better understanding of any early issues in the development cycle and what they can do to address them.

What an ultrasound exam does not reveal about your baby

While ultrasounds are an excellent tool for early health checkups, there are things they may miss. For example, some defects may not be visible during the scan. This could result from a number of factors, including positioning of the fetus.

Not all chromosomal/genetic defects can be detected during the imaging process. Chromosomal and genetic defects can sometimes occur in fetuses that appear healthy during an ultrasound. This is why it’s still important for expecting mothers to undergo genetic tests that will screen for these issues. This is a great supplement to the ultrasound, and gives patients that much more information about their pregnancy.

Your ultrasound schedule

Most doctors will suggest an ultrasound schedule for you in order to check up on the baby’s development throughout the pregnancy. These check ins will help both you and the doctor gage the health of the baby during various stages of the pregnancy. It will also allow for quick action should something come up.

Typically, your first scan is not until 8-14 weeks into the pregnancy, but some women opt for an earlier scan. These scans occur at around week 6-8. Early scans are not necessary, but they may be recommended if you have a history of complications or if abnormalities, such as bleeding, occur.

Some women will have their first scan sometime between weeks 8 and 14. This scan is known as the dating scan because it gives a more accurate timeframe for the due date if a woman is unsure of her last menstrual period or if she has irregular cycles.

The next recommended ultrasound takes place in the second trimester between weeks 18 and 20. This scan will provide greater insight into the health of the developing baby. Clear images of the organs and extremities will show how healthy the baby is and if there is any cause for concern.

While the series of ultrasounds outlined above are typical, some women may require additional scanning. If your doctor sees anything troubling, they will recommend further scans to ensure that it does not become an issue. Additional scans may also be necessary if your pregnancy extends past the due date.

Final thoughts

Ultrasounds are an essential part of pregnancy. They provide one of the best methods for monitoring the baby’s health. Many issues can be caught early on in the scanning process, allowing doctors to adequately prepare. It is important to speak with your doctor and follow their recommended schedule. Outside of health checkups, ultrasounds give you the opportunity to connect with the life growing inside of you. Everything becomes real when you see the first image of your developing baby. It is a big part of the pregnancy experience; the joy you get seeing your baby for the first time, heartbeat and all.

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