Why You Should Avoid ‘Keepsake’ Ultrasounds

Scans are not intended for non-medical use
Ultrasound Scan

If you’re pregnant, you’re probably eager to see what your baby looks like. It’s perfectly natural to be curious about the new life growing within you.

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But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning expectant moms and dads about businesses looking to capitalize on this curiosity – and possibly putting your unborn child in danger.

The FDA issued an advisory recently about a growing type of business that sells so-called keepsake ultrasounds, in which an ultrasound scan is performed in a non-medical setting on a pregnant woman. The goal of these sessions is to create a keepsake photo or video for the sole purpose of being shared with friends and family just like a photograph taken with a camera.

The FDA says it “strongly discourages” such uses of ultrasound. Its use should be limited to medical purposes only and performed solely by trained health care professionals, the FDA says.

Ultrasound is a prescription device not intended for over-the-counter, non-medical use, the FDA says.

Long-term effects unknown

In ultrasound, high-frequency sound waves are sent through your abdomen by a device called a transducer. The sound waves are recorded and changed into video or photographic images of your baby. Routine, medically prescribed ultrasound scans usually take less than 15 minutes to perform.

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But a commercial ultrasound worker attempting to get a good image of your baby’s face might take an hour to do so. Or if the baby is not in the right position, the commercial ultrasound operator might allow the mother to undergo a number of ultrasounds to get the desired image. The business also may be using machines that are not routinely checked for safety. There is no regulation or oversight of this commercial use of ultrasound.

Studies have shown ultrasound is not hazardous; the procedure has no harmful side effects to you or your baby. However, there are no studies that examine the effects of frequent, sustained or long-term use of ultrasound on a developing baby, says Jeff Chapa, MD, Head of the Section of Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Cleveland Clinic Children’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it also can produce very small bubbles – called cavitation – in some tissues, the FDA says. The long-term effects of tissue heating and cavitation are unknown, Dr. Chapa says.

“We don’t know what the long-term effects are and we don’t know what the safety threshold is,” Dr. Chapa says. “It’s a medical test and we should not lose sight of that fact.”

Obstetricians usually schedule about two or three ultrasounds for pregnant women, Dr. Chapa says. The first is when the pregnancy is between 11 weeks and 14 weeks along; a second may be done at 20 weeks.

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Dr. Chapa says your health care team knows that the ultrasound image provides a chance for expecting mothers and fathers to bond with their child, and so do try to provide some pictures to serve as a memento.

Several medical groups also 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.

The commercial ultrasound services appeal to expecting parents who hope to create special memories. The best memory to create, however, might be giving birth to a healthy baby, Dr. Chapa says.

“Ultrasounds have become so routine that people forget its real purpose,” Dr. Chapa says. “Many expectant parents look forward to the ultrasound because it’s an opportunity to bond with the baby. But it’s a medical test and not something that should be done solely for entertainment purposes.”

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