Are 5D Ultrasounds Even a Real Thing?

5D ultrasounds claim to be the "gold standard" of ultrasound technology, but are they any different to 3D ultrasounds?

Fetus in 3D Sonography
Photo: BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Every pregnant person is probably familiar with traditional 2D ultrasounds at the OB-GYN’s office. You might even know about 3D ultrasounds with high-quality, lifelike images and 4D ultrasounds that resemble moving images. But have you ever heard of 5D ultrasound technology?

Some commercial retailers and clinics tout 5D ultrasounds—also known as HD ultrasounds—as the “gold standard” of fetal imagery. They claim that 5D ultrasounds rely on software to produce even better images of your baby. Moreover, they’re supposed to enhance facial features, skin tone, and depth perception through lighting.

Sounds great, right? Not so fast. As we've learned time and time again, more isn't always better, and that may go for 5D ultrasounds, too.

More Gimmick Than Gold Standard

While 5D ultrasounds sound like the latest and greatest technology, they’re basically the same thing as 3D and 4D ultrasounds, says Dr. Welsey Lee, co-director of Texas Children's Fetal Center at the Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women and section chief of women's and fetal imaging and the director of fetal imaging research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Dr. Lee claims that specific companies (mainly GE and Samsung) have commercialized 5D ultrasounds for various specialties like heart, limbs, and central nervous system. “It’s their brand of 3D and 4D ultrasound with some enhancements that they have developed with software,” he says. “It's more of a gimmick or trademark.”

Indeed, after a quick Google search of the term, you’ll find that many commercial companies offer "keepsake" 5D ultrasounds as mementos of your pregnancy. But while 5D ultrasounds are safe in a professional medical setting, commercial or boutique ultrasound experiences are not recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since they haven't been proven safe. And what these companies don't mention is that 5D ultrasounds are not much different than the 3D or 4D ones you can get at the clinic.

2D, 3D, 4D, and 5D Ultrasounds: What’s the Difference?

5D ultrasounds are very similar to 3D and 4D ultrasounds, which are based off of the traditional 2D model. Here’s the difference between them.

2D Ultrasounds

2D ultrasounds are the traditional flat, black-and-white fetal images from the doctor’s office. It uses high-frequency sound waves and special imaging software to create images of your baby, which are displayed on a monitor. The purpose of a 2D ultrasound is to look at the skeleton, organs, and limbs so that the doctor can track fetal development and spot any potential problems.

3D Ultrasounds

3D ultrasounds also use sound waves to create a sharper, more lifelike image of your baby by focusing on skin and anatomy. 3D is especially popular among parents-to-be because, unlike the skeletal image of a 2D ultrasound picture, a 3D can give you a clear idea of facial features, body shape, and contours. Doctors may use 3D ultrasounds to get a clearer view of the baby’s anatomy, which may help diagnose potential birth defects and abnormalities, says Michele Hakakha, M.D., an OB-GYN in Beverly Hills and author of Expecting 411.

4D Ultrasounds

4D ultrasounds are similar to 3D in that they focus on exterior development like skin and facial features and may be able to detect fingers and toes. But where 3D is a static image, 4D is a moving image that could give some diagnostic data to providers.

“Two-D ultrasounds are fine for diagnostic assessment,” says Dr. Lee. “But when 2D ultrasounds look suspicious, the doctor might use 3D or 4D imaging tools” for a better look.

5D/HD Ultrasounds

Many clinics and companies claim that 5D ultrasounds offer the best quality. It’s a software package that enhances facial features and depth perception and has a virtual lighting source. However, as Dr. Lee notes, it’s pretty much the same as 3D ultrasounds.

Are 5D Ultrasounds Safe?

Fetal ultrasounds were developed in 1956 but were not widely used until the 1970s. They have become a mainstay of prenatal care as a powerful diagnostic tool, and as long as a trained medical professional uses them, they are safe.

However, the FDA notes that ultrasound can potentially create biological changes in a growing fetus, including heating tissue and creating gas pockets called cavitation. They strongly caution parents to use ultrasound technology sparingly and only with a trained medical professional. Long-term non-medical exposure hasn’t been proven safe, and some scientists are concerned that energy from ultrasound waves might somehow affect your little one.

More studies must be done to understand the potential risk of repeated exposure to ultrasound.

The Bottom Line

Only get ultrasounds—including 3D, 4D, and 5D varieties—from trained professionals at medical centers. Also, avoid commercial merchants who sell ultrasound imagery as “keepsakes” of your pregnancy, says Dr. Hakakha. The FDA agrees and has issued a safety warning, urging consumers to steer clear of these commercial products.

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