3-D and 4-D Ultrasounds: What You Need to Know

Get the scoop on the latest ultrasound technology -- and whether 3-D or 4-D ultrasounds make sense for you.
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Ultrasounds have moved beyond those grainy, hard-to-make-out images that have you wondering if you're looking at a hand or a foot. With 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds, you can get a much clearer and sharper look at your baby -- and you'll even get a sense of whether your little one has your nose or your mate's!

But are 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds as safe as their lower-tech counterparts? Here's what you need to know.

How 3-D and 4-D Ultrasounds Work

Just like the traditional 2-D ultrasounds, 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds send sound waves into your uterus and to your baby, to create an image of the soft tissues, organs, and other anatomy. But 3-D ultrasounds produce much sharper images of your baby, and 4-D ultrasounds go one step further and capture video, so you can see your baby moving in the womb. "3-D and 4-D technology has vastly improved the quality of ultrasound imaging," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "They give a very realistic, photo-like quality to the imaging." And they present no additional risks to your baby, compared to 2-D ultrasounds, so getting these in lieu of a traditional ultrasound won't be putting your baby in greater danger.

Benefits of 3-D and 4-D Ultrasounds

Because the images are much sharper and clearer in a 3-D ultrasound, they can potentially allow your doctor to get a better grasp of any issues your developing baby may have. "There are some real benefits to doing a 3-D ultrasound, compared to a traditional 2-D ultrasound, including visualizing fetal anatomy much clearer because of the ability to see an infinite number of planes," says Michele Hakakha, M.D., an ob-gyn in Beverly Hills and author of Expecting 411. "When used in conjunction with a 2-D ultrasound, 3-D/4-D ultrasonography can aid in the earlier diagnosis of many potential defects, including cleft lip or cleft palate, other craniofacial abnormalities, neural tube defects like spina bifida, and skeletal malformations." And from a personal perspective, it does give you a much clearer look at your baby's face, which makes this new technology even more exciting for the parents-to-be.

Should You Get a 3-D or 4-D Ultrasound?

Despite these benefits, 2-D ultrasound still gives your doctor a very good look at the essential info she needs to understand how your baby is progressing, so some insurance companies don't provide coverage for higher-quality images unless they're medically indicated. So should you splurge on these first photos of your baby? Unless your doctor's office offers it as part of a regularly scheduled ultrasound, Dr. Hakakha advises that you avoid the temptation to get one. "Opting to get a 3-D/4-D ultrasound in pregnancy to obtain 'better' pictures of one's fetus is absolutely not recommended and may be dangerous when done repetitively, outside the recommendation of a physician," she says. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that expectant parents avoid the types of "keepsake" ultrasound images and videos that are now available commercially. So wait until your baby is born to go crazy with the picture-taking!

You'll get your first glimpse of your baby at this test, but doctors will be ensuring that everything's growing just as it should.

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