Imaging techniques give parents-to-be sneak peaks
By Lori Harlan
Copley News Service
Ask any pregnant woman and she'll likely agree: 40 weeks is a long time to wait for the arrival of a baby. But elective ultrasounds are expanding parents' options beyond the confines of the doctor's office.
Elective ultrasounds allow expectant mothers to get a sneak peek at the baby - and even determine the gender, if the baby cooperates - as early as 18 weeks into gestation.
In a routine pregnancy, most doctors perform one sonogram, typically at 20 weeks.
"We perform ultrasounds at 20 weeks because that's when you get the most bang for your buck," says Dr. Alyce Sherbenou, at Springfield (Ill.) Obstetric and Gynecologic Associates, or SOGA. "The baby is big enough that we can see the body's structures without obstruction."
As the baby grows and fills the space available in the uterus, it becomes more difficult to get a clear picture.
Baby Reflections in Normal, Ill., offers expectant parents a variety of options for nonmedical ultrasounds earlier and more often than traditionally scheduled.
Using three- and four-dimensional technology, these procedures create a clearer image than traditional two-dimensional ultrasound. As the name implies, two-dimensional ultrasounds scan only two planes. Three-dimensional scanning captures an additional plane, but produces a still image.
The most advanced method, a 4-D ultrasound, adds real-time movement, explains Joette Cole, a registered diagnostic medical sonographer at Baby Reflections. A 4-D ultrasound uses more information to produce the picture; the result is a more true-to-life image of the baby.
While elective ultrasounds, and 4-D ultrasounds in particular, have been popular on both coasts and in major cities for about five years, Cole says it only has been available central Illinois for about two years.
Kara Leak, 33, read about 4-D ultrasound in parenting magazines when she was pregnant with her second child and knew immediately that she wanted to do it.
"Ultrasounds at the doctor's office were very formal. I wanted more. I wanted to have a different experience. From a parent's perspective, to see the face and all the features makes it more real," Leak says.
The procedures are the same as those offered in a doctor's office, says Cole, who has 14 years' experience in medical sonography. She stresses, though, that elective procedures are non-medical, and there is no doctor on site to read the results.
"This is not diagnostic. We make sure the person has already had at least one ultrasound with a doctor," she says. "People sometimes want reassurance from us that everything looks OK, but we just can't give it to them. This is strictly for fun, to have a keepsake of the pregnancy."
Sherbenou doesn't suggest elective ultrasounds to her patients because they aren't medically indicated - and aren't covered by most insurance - but said she understands the appeal.
"Pregnancy is amazing. A lot of parents, especially first-time parents, are so excited to find out the gender that they're willing to travel and pay for the chance to find out two weeks earlier than their doctor would have told them. It's just something people can do for fun," she said.
Ultrasounds are "very safe," Cole said, with no proven medical risks to patients or their unborn babies.
"The machine does make loud clicking sounds as it gathers information, but we aren't aware of any significant effect on the fetus," Sherbenou said. SOGA doesn't offer 4-D on site because the ultrasound staff is too busy with medical ultrasounds to perform elective ones.
"The medical aspect is obviously our priority," she said.
At Baby Reflections, the whole family can be part of the process.
"I stress to people that this is a relaxed environment. You can bring anyone you want - young or old. You won't disturb anyone by bringing small children. In fact, it's a great way for a young sibling to see the baby and understand what's going on," she said.
The average number of family members at a session is four or five, but Cole said she's had as many as 15 people observing a session.
Leak and her husband, who were expecting their third child, brought their two daughters along.
"My older daughter is 3 1/2 years old, so it was a neat experience for her. We talk about the baby and, while she has some concept of it, the ultrasound was really fun for her. She could see the baby's face and hear the heartbeat," Leak said.
The opportunity to see and bond with the baby is the biggest benefit for parents, siblings and grandparents, Cole said.
The clear images let family members see distinctive features and decide if the baby has Grandpa John's nose or Aunt Betty's chin.
"You can see little hands and feet and the features of the baby's face. People can't believe the images. It's surprisingly clear," Cole said.
"Customers who come in after the baby is born always say how much the baby actually looks like the 4-D image. It's very realistic, and people are amazed at how true-to-life the images are."
With her second pregnancy, Leak said the 4-D ultrasound allowed her to see the baby's features, and she noticed striking similarities to her older daughter.
The Leaks don't want to know the gender of their third child until it's born, but they still were able to enjoy the 4-D ultrasound.
"Joette is so good at what she does. She showed us what we wanted to see but didn't spoil it for us," Leak said. "Even after the 4-D, we still have no idea of the gender."
The experience of the sneak preview - even without gender determination - is somewhat habit-forming. Leak said if she and her husband have another child, she definitely will have the 4-D ultrasound again.
"It's just an amazing experience," she said.
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