What Is a 3D Ultrasound?

Wondering whether you should get a 3D ultrasound during pregnancy? Learn about the latest technology and how it compares to 4D ultrasounds.  

Ultrasounds have moved beyond those grainy, indecipherable images of your growing fetus. Indeed, 3D ultrasounds give you 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 partner’s! Here’s everything you need to know about 3D baby ultrasounds, including the cost, benefits, and comparisons to 4D ultrasounds.

What is a 3D Ultrasound?

Like their two-dimensional counterparts, 3D ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves and special imaging software to create images of your baby’s soft tissues, organs, and other anatomy. But 3D ultrasounds produce much sharper, clearer images of your little one. "3D 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 imaging."

A 3D ultrasound is performed like any other ultrasound. First, the doctor or technician will rub gel on your belly and then move a transducer across the area. The transducer directs the sound waves toward your uterus and the baby inside it, giving you a picture of your developing baby.

Couple Holding Picture of Ultrasound

The Benefits of 3D Baby 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 3D ultrasound, compared to a traditional 2D 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 2D ultrasound, 3D 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, 3D ultrasounds give you a much better look at your baby's face, which makes this new technology even more exciting for the parents-to-be.

When is the Best Time to Get a 3D Ultrasound?

Pregnant women can get a 3D ultrasound anytime, either in addition to or instead of a traditional, two-dimensional ultrasound. Medical professionals may prefer conducting them between approximately 24 and 34 weeks. During this time, the baby will be developed enough to view him properly. There’s also less risk that fluid or positioning in the pelvis will block results.

How Much Does a 3D Ultrasound Cost?

Since two-dimensional ultrasounds still give your doctor a good look at your baby’s progression, some insurance companies don't provide coverage for higher-quality 3D images unless they're medically indicated. Insurance will never pay for ultrasounds given at shopping malls or other non-medical venues (which many experts recommend you avoid anyway). Check with your provider for more information.

Are 3D Ultrasounds Safe?

Just as with traditional ultrasounds, a 3D ultrasound involves no radiation or x-rays, and it’s totally safe for both you and Baby. Just make sure you’re getting it done by a qualified professional for medical reasons only.

3D vs 4D Ultrasound: What’s the Difference?

So what is a 4D ultrasound? While 3D ultrasounds produce clear visuals of your baby, 4D ultrasounds take it one step further by capturing video. You’ll get an image of your baby with live action movement, so you can see what she’s doing right at that very second—smiling, smirking, thumb-sucking—minus the short time delay of traditional ultrasounds.

Should I Get a 3D or 4D Ultrasound?

Naturally the demand for 3D and 4D ultrasounds has skyrocketed as more couples want to experience this intimate look at their babies. While this technology is becoming more widely available in doctors' offices, don't worry if you're not offered one. The traditional 2D ultrasound is still effective at screening for potential problems and making sure everything's fine in the womb.

In fact, Dr. Hakakha advises that you avoid the temptation to get a 3D or 4D ultrasound, unless your doctor's office offers it as part of a regularly scheduled visit. "Opting to get a 3D/4D ultrasound in pregnancy to obtain 'better' pictures of one's fetus is absolutely not required and may be dangerous when done repetitively, outside the recommendation of a physician," she says.

Similarly, 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. Although ultrasounds aren’t shown to cause harm, they may heat tissues or produce small bubbles called cavitation. “The long-term effects of tissue heating and cavitation are not known,” according to the FDA in a December 2014 statement. “Therefore, ultrasound scans should be done only when there is a medical need, based on a prescription, and performed by appropriately-trained operators.”

Additional reporting by
Nicole Harris
Nicole Harris, SEO Editor
Nicole Harris is the Editor at Parents. She joined the team in 2018 as a Staff Writer and was promoted to SEO Editor in 2021. She now covers everything from children's health to parenting trends. Nicole's writing has appeared in Martha Stewart Weddings, Good Housekeeping, The Knot, BobVila.com, and other publications. A graduate of Syracuse University, Nicole currently lives in New Jersey with her husband.
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