Should you get a "keepsake" ultrasound?

Many commercial imaging clinics offer keepsake ultrasounds. These images and videos show your baby in the womb but are not taken for medical reasons. They may come with trinkets and keepsakes.

While you may undergo routine clinical ultrasounds during the course of your pregnancy, a keepsake or elective ultrasound is something that you schedule outside of your provider’s care. Many people receive these ultrasounds with the goal of getting additional images or video of their unborn baby.

Advertisements at a shopping center or online may entice you to think: ‘Should I get a “keepsake” ultrasound?’ But buyer beware — the answer from medical experts is a resounding no. Here’s why.

What Are Ultrasounds?

Ultrasounds, also called sonograms, are imaging tests. They use high-frequency sound waves to see into the body. In real-time, an ultrasound tech can see your tissues, organs, and blood flow.

Ultrasounds are medical tools used to help evaluate and diagnose health issues. They’re often used in pregnancy to check you and your baby for problems.

They are also used for many other health issues. They may screen for heart disease or breast cancer. Or to guide a needle during a biopsy.

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Are Ultrasounds Safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that ultrasound imaging for medical care is safe. When used by qualified medical professionals, these devices have an excellent track record.

Ultrasounds are safer than X-ray imaging. That’s because there is no ionizing radiation exposure (which can damage DNA) with ultrasounds.

Even so, according to the FDA, ultrasound energy can heat tissues slightly. If used for prolonged periods, this may create small gas pockets in body fluids or tissues. Research hasn’t shown if this effect has long-term consequences or what they may be.

What Are Prenatal Ultrasounds?

Pregnant people have been getting ultrasounds from medical professionals without ill effects for decades. Ultrasounds are essential to prenatal care. Doctors use them to check fetal and placental health during pregnancy.

These prenatal ultrasounds aren’t photos ops or to find out your baby’s sex. The general advice is to keep the time spent getting ultrasounds as low as possible. Pregnant people should get as few ultrasounds as needed to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

When are prenatal ultrasounds used?

There are several types of standard prenatal ultrasound.

Pregnant people may get an early or “dating” ultrasound, typically before 14 weeks. This checks that the embryo has implanted itself inside the uterus. It also checks for multiples and gives the doctors a better idea of the baby’s due date.

Most pregnant people will also get an ultrasound called an anatomy scan between 18 and 22 weeks of pregnancy. This imaging test checks for congenital disabilities and makes sure the baby is growing well.

Your doctor may do more ultrasounds if you develop pregnancy-related conditions. To check if the baby is growing correctly, they may do a “growth scan” to estimate its size.

The number of ultrasounds you get with each pregnancy depends on many factors. Your doctor will decide if and when to do an ultrasound.

Doctors can use them to:

  • Confirm you are pregnant.
  • Check on your baby’s age and growth.
  • Check your baby’s heartbeat and muscle tone.
  • Check if you are pregnant with twins or multiples.
  • Check if the baby is in the head-first position before birth.
  • Check your placenta, ovaries and uterus, or womb.

Are prenatal ultrasounds safe?

Prenatal ultrasounds are safe for you and your baby when done by a trained health care professional in a medical setting. Doctors have used ultrasounds on pregnant people for over 30 years without serious issues.

Can too many ultrasounds can harm a baby? While we’ve been using ultrasounds for a long time, experts are unsure how many are too many. Because of this, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) recommends limited use of ultrasound imaging during pregnancy.

What Can You Expect During a Prenatal Ultrasound

Most prenatal ultrasounds take about 20 minutes. To take a prenatal ultrasound, a doctor or radiologist will:

  • Ask you to drink water an hour or so before your visit. Check with your doctor’s office for their specific needs based on the type of scan you’re getting.
  • Have you remove any clothing from your belly. You’ll lie on an exam chair like at a dentist’s office.
  • They’ll use a transducer directly on your belly for a transabdominal ultrasound. This is the most common type of prenatal ultrasound in the later stages of pregnancy.
  • Early in pregnancy, a person may need a transvaginal ultrasound. This ultrasound uses a wand-like probe to see the uterus through the vagina. They’ll have you remove your clothes and underwear and don an exam gown.
  • The tech will apply a thin gel layer on your belly or the wand. This helps relay the sound waves into your body to produce better pictures.
  • The tech will move the wand and take images and video in real time. Images may be 2D (flat) or 3D. You may feel pressure where they’re using the transducer or wand.
  • You can usually see what the tech sees on a computer screen. It should show your baby in your womb. During the ultrasound, they’ll mark areas of the screen and take measurements.
  • They’ll often print off pictures as they go for you to take home. They may also be able to email or text you a link to digital images.

A Doppler ultrasound can measure the blow flood in the umbilical cord and baby’s blood vessels. You may also need this type of ultrasound if you have Rh disease, which can cause serious fetal problems if left untreated.

Are Elective Ultrasounds Safe?

Ultrasounds done by a health care worker in a doctor’s office or clinic for medical reasons are safe. But if you consider getting an elective keepsake ultrasound, you may want to think again.

The FDA considers keepsake imaging an unapproved use of a medical device. It has issued advisories urging women not to seek ultrasounds outside their doctor’s office or a hospital.

You should not get a keepsake ultrasound to replace a clinical ultrasound. Only a qualified medical professional should give you an ultrasound. You should not get any ultrasounds other than those from your doctor.

Keepsake ultrasounds are not medical tests. The person giving you this type of ultrasound is not qualified to tell you about your baby’s health.

Keepsake ultrasounds can’t diagnose any medical condition. They may give you a false sense of security. Or they may cause anxiety if the person doing the test suggests there’s a problem when there isn’t.

Medical Experts Against Keepsake Ultrasounds

Several medical organizations advise against keepsake ultrasounds. These include:

  • The AIUM.
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
  • The American Medical Association.

Since 1999 AIUM has strongly discouraged the non-medical use of ultrasound for entertainment purposes. Despite these warnings from medical experts, non-medical keepsake ultrasound facilities are popular. For the health of your baby, it’s best to avoid them.

A Safer Way to Get A “Keepsake” Ultrasound

Even without visiting a commercial imaging clinic, you’ll likely have at least one ultrasound during pregnancy.

You can ask your doctor or tech for some images to take home. Most offices will do this without you even asking. Most are happy to take pictures if they have time for it.

Ultrasound Imaging. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Link.

Choosing Wisely. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Link.

Current ACOG Guidelines. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Link.

The Issue with Keepsake Ultrasounds. AIUM. Link.

Ultrasound During Pregnancy. March of Dimes. Link.

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.