FDA warns against doing extra ultrasounds for 'keepsake' images

pregnant woman and the future father of the doctor's office, ultrasound diagnostics; Shutterstock ID 172643276; PO: TODAY.com
Khakimullin Aleksandr / Shutterstock

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By A. Pawlowski

Those amazing ultrasound images of your baby may tempt you to seek out more for the family photo album, but the government is advising parents to skip any unnecessary scans to help keep the fetus safe.

In a Consumer Update, revised on Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it “strongly discourages” the use of fetal ultrasound imaging and Doppler fetal ultrasound heartbeat monitors for non-medical reasons, like creating “keepsake images and videos.” 

The FDA has been weighing in on the trend since 2008, said spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski. The update is meant to promote "the safe and prudent use of ultrasound," she added.

Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to look inside the womb and provide real-time images of the fetus.Khakimullin Aleksandr / Today

With proper use, ultrasound helps doctors check on a baby’s size, age, movements and breathing. It can also detect some birth defects.

But scanning has taken on more of an entertainment value than a medical one for some parents, with “ultrasound parties,” unusual in-utero images going viral and the popularity of videos showing unborn babies hanging out in mom’s belly.

Here’s the concern: While there’s no evidence ultrasound — which uses high-frequency sound waves to look inside the womb — causes any harm, it does have a small effect on baby’s body.

“Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it can also produce very small bubbles (cavitation) in some tissues,” said FDA biomedical engineer Shahram Vaezy, in a statement.

Doctors don’t yet know what the long-term effects of these changes are, so the FDA recommends that scans be done only when medically necessary and by trained operators. Similarly, Doppler ultrasound heartbeat monitors should be used by professionals only, it notes.

The agency particularly frowns on fetal keepsake videos, noting they have no medical benefit and that a fetus could be exposed to up to an hour of ultrasound at businesses that specialize in creating the 3D/4D images. 

“While FDA recognizes that fetal imaging can promote bonding between the parents and the unborn baby, such opportunities are routinely provided during prenatal care,” the FDA says.

It cautions parents tempted to buy a keepsake video that there is no control on how long an imaging session will last, how many sessions will take place, or whether the machine will be operated properly.

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