Why Do You Get Ultrasounds In Pregnancy?
Seeing your baby for the first time on a black and white screen is an experience you’ll never forget. It’s a moment filled with both excitement and, for many people, anxiety and relief all at the same time. You finally get a glance of that beautiful little baby you have worked so hard to make!
Ultrasounds or sonograms is one part of your prenatal testing. It uses sound waves to create an image of baby, the placenta and the uterus, which gives your healthcare provider valuable information about your pregnancy. The person performing your ultrasound (usually an ultrasound technician or sonographer), won’t share your results as the radiologist is the one who checks it over and puts together a report for your healthcare provider. BUT the tech will be able to show you the sex of your baby!
Ultrasounds are used for everything from checking the:
- Fetal heartbeat
- Fetal growth
- Placenta location
- Umbilical cord
- Baby’s general health and anatomy.
- Length of your cervix
- Risk of preterm labor
Moms I work with, in New Brunswick and around Canada, usually have a lot of questions around ultrasounds: are they safe? when do ultrasounds usually happen? What can I expect in the room? How do I prepare? And the most common one these days…how has COVID-19 changed the ultrasound experience?
Are ultrasounds safe for baby?
According to Health Canada, there have been millions of diagnostic fetal ultrasound examinations over the past few decades with no confirmed health risks for the baby or the mother. This finding is consistent with the majority of scientific studies on the effects of ultrasound. Research is ongoing to ensure the continued safety of diagnostic fetal ultrasound.
To ensure your safety, ultrasounds have to be carried out by medical professionals, following Health Canada’s Guidelines for the Safe Use of Diagnostic Ultrasound. These are radiologists, your specific doctors, or ultrasound techs.
In Canada, diagnostic fetal ultrasound is done only on referral from a licenced health care provider. It is performed in a clinical setting by highly qualified professionals – this includes 3D ultrasounds that you can buy privately in some areas.
When will I have an ultrasound?
First trimester: Dating Scan
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada recommends that all pregnant women have a dating scan – though due to our healthcare system limitations, this is not routinely done in many parts of Canada if you know when the first day of your last menstrual cycle started. This scan will take place around or before week 11 of your pregnancy if you will have it. This scan will:
- Measure the fetus and confirm your estimated due date
- Confirm fetal heartbeat
- Detect an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo implants outside the womb, usually in the Fallopian tube
- Detect the number of fetuses (maybe you’re having twins…or more)
- If the practitioner can’t get a clear picture, you may be offered a transvaginal scan (when an ultrasound probe is inserted vaginally to be able to get a closer and more accurate picture of baby).
Around 11 weeks, your baby is the size of a fig, measuring 1.5-2 inches in length. He or she will now weigh about one-third of an ounce. During this week, the baby’s torso will be lengthening, and its body will be straightening in posture. For a more in depth look at what to expect during every term of pregnancy, check out this blog post.
It surprises a lot of people in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island that it’s not routine to have a dating ultrasound, unless you have no idea when you got pregnant.
Second trimester: Anatomy Scan
Between 18 and 22 weeks, you’ll be offered an anatomy scan. This gives you and your healthcare provider a clear picture of the health of your baby and your pregnancy. The scan will:
- Measure the size of your baby
- Check all major organs
- Measure levels of amniotic fluid
- Check the location of the placenta: if it is lying low in your uterus, you may need a follow-up scan around 32 weeks.
- Check baby’s sex, provided you want to know
- Show what baby looks like!
At 18 weeks, baby is about the size of a chicken breast, about five inches long and five ounces in weight. Little but mighty. There is a lot going on in their body that wee!
Unless there are concerns about your baby, you won’t have another ultrasound. Your healthcare provider may recommend what’s called a growth scan (between 28 and 40 weeks) if you are having twins, baby measures smaller than expected, you’ve previously given birth to a small baby or other complications such as diabetes or high blood pressure arise.
What happens during an ultrasound?
When you book your ultrasound appointment at any hospital in New Brunswick or around Canada, you’ll be given a set of instructions. You’ll be asked to drink a litre of water before you go and you’re not allowed to pee. Why? They want your bladder full so they can see through it easily. A full bladder helps the ultrasound echoes to reach your womb, giving the sonographer a good view of your baby.
During the appointment, the ultrasound technician will put a gel on your belly and use a transducer (a handheld device) over your skin to pick up images of baby. Warning! They will press on your bladder so you might feel uncomfortable when it’s that full.
Do I have to have an ultrasound?
Since the main purpose of a scan is to make sure everything is on track and you and baby are healthy, new parents find scans reassuring. If you have any concerns, talk to your healthcare provider. Ultimately, the final decision is always yours.
What if the ultrasound shows something is wrong?
It’s natural to feel anxious about these scans. They offer a lot of information and are made to detect any problems with the pregnancy. That being said, it’s important to stay calm and not panic. If an anomaly is detected, you’ll be offered follow-up tests to help understand exactly what is going on.
If baby has a health problem, the information from the ultrasound will help your healthcare provider some up with a plan to care for you and baby. You will have support around you, but it is best to talk through any questions or fears you may have.
What are ultrasounds like during COVID-19?
These days we live in a bit of a different world. While we are trying to go on with our lives, business as usual, everything is just a little more difficult and a little more uncertain. In this next section, I am focusing on New Brunswick. These guidelines are currently implemented in Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John and other cities around the country. That being said, things are changing all of the time so make sure to call your local hospital and understand their exact rules. Each hospital is approaching things a little differently. Contact your local hospital here:
Upper River Valley
There are 3 main changes that most hospitals have made post COVID-19. Please note, this is changing every day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to call your local hospital and understand the rules they have in place.
- Show up no earlier than 15 minutes before your appointment. This allows the waiting room to stay safe and for people to maintain the recommended 6 ft. social distancing protocol.
- Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at all times – specifically a mask. This includes while you are in the chair getting the scan. This protects you, baby and the technician in the room with you.
- No support person allowed. This is likely the biggest, most impactful change at all. To help limit the number of people in a closed space, New Brunswick hospitals have decided to ban any support individuals from being with you during the scan unless medically necessary to assist you. They can drive you, but are not allowed into the hospital
This is an extremely difficult time… not having your support person there feels, to many, like part of their experience is being robbed. And it’s not just for you, but for them as well. The scan is the moment where you see baby for the first time. It’s a magical moment that both you and your support person likely would like to share. This might affect your mindset or your support person’s mindset. Hang in there! For the time being, you are allowed to take a picture of the scan and are usually given a couple of print-outs. It’s not great, but in there unprecedented times, it’s something!
Your pregnancy and birth experience will be full of questions. That’s normal. In my Empowered Birth Prenatal course, I answer any questions you may have in a lot more detail. Together, we tailor your birth experience to you because pregnancy and birth are not the same for everyone. In my class, I help you develop your own birth guide and empower you with all the knowledge I’ve gathered from being a nurse and from helping many parents across Canada go into their birth experience ready and empowered.