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 woman 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 5D ultrasounds rely on software to produce even better images of your baby. What’s more, they’re supposed to enhance facial facials, 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.

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 a variety of 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 to be safe (but there's no evidence of keepsake ultrasounds being dangerous, either). And what these companies don't mention is that 5D ultrasounds are really 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: This is the traditional black-and-white ultrasound 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.

3D Ultrasounds: Three-dimensional ultrasounds work the same as their 2D counterparts, but they provide a sharper and more lifelike image of your baby. Doctors may use 3D ultrasounds to see your baby’s anatomy better, 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: Four-dimensional ultrasounds essentially give you a real-time moving video of your fetus. Like 3D models, these ultrasounds can let doctors diagnose fetal health problems. “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 5D ultrasounds offer the best quality. It’s a software package that enhances facial features and depth perception, and it also has a virtual lighting source. However, as Dr. Lee notes, it’s pretty much the same thing as 3D ultrasounds.

Are 5D Ultrasounds Safe?

According to both the FDA and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), ultrasounds aren’t shown to harm a developing fetus. They don’t use X-rays or radiation, and they aren’t linked to any health or developmental problems. However, these guidelines are solely for ultrasounds done by trained professionals based on medical need. 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. It’s important to note, though, that there’s a lack of evidence either way.

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: It issued a December 2014 update urging consumers to steer clear of these commercial products.

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