If you're worried about the safety of this common prenatal test and wondering if you should get an ultrasound, our experts can help put you at ease.

By Lisa Milbrand

You may have concerns about the safety of ultrasound for your growing fetus, and while the majority of studies indicate that limited use of ultrasounds during pregnancy won't hurt a baby, it's understandable to be a little apprehensive about getting those fuzzy pictures of your baby before he or she is born. But do you really need to worry?

How Ultrasounds Work

Ultrasounds send sound waves through the body to glimpse the soft tissues and organs beneath. That makes it especially good for observing fetal development, as your doctor will get a good look at how the baby's organs are growing. And it makes it much easier for your doctor to spot birth defects early -- including some that may be able to be addressed before your baby is born. "There is a much higher likelihood that birth defects of all types will be identified by the ultrasound," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston.

Why Ultrasounds Could Be Dangerous

The main concern with ultrasounds is that the sound waves carry energy into the fetus -- and that energy can heat up the tissues in your growing baby. And, unfortunately, there's no definitive answer on what that heat could do to your baby's developing body. "The American College of Obstericians and Gynecologists makes it very clear that the energy delivered to the fetus cannot be assumed to be completely safe," says Michele Hakakha, M.D., an ob-gyn in Beverly Hills and author of Expecting 411. "The possibility exists that some ill effects may occur when ultrasound is used inappropriately."

Using Ultrasounds Safely

Thinking twice about having that anatomy scan, then? Don't be. Despite the very slight possibility of risks, most experts agree that medically necessary ultrasounds are nothing to worry about. "Ultrasound has been in use during pregnancy for the past 35 to 40 years, and it has an extremely good safety record," says Dr. Putterman, adding that there's "no scientific data that indicate that ultrasound examinations are harmful for mothers or developing fetuses."

Still, experts recommend that you have ultrasounds only when medically necessary -- and that means that you should just say no to those new ultrasound shops popping up around the country that offer high-quality, 3-D peeks at your baby's face. "Ultrasounds should be done only when medical information about a pregnancy is needed, and should be done only at the lowest possible setting," says Dr. Hakakha. "Ultrasounds at the mall, administered by a technician of unknown training using a machine of unknown calibration and safety, done for an unknown duration of time, in order to get a picture of a fetus' face for one's in-laws, may be quite dangerous." In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued an update urging consumers to avoid such fetal "keepsake" ultrasound images and videos, as well as heartbeat monitors.

It's hard to be patient and wait to get a good look at that beautiful face -- but it's better to be safe than sorry. And ultrasounds that aren't necessary may be putting your baby's health at risk.

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