What Is a 3D Ultrasound?

Wondering whether you should get a 3D ultrasound during pregnancy? Learn about this pregnancy ultrasound technology and how it compares.  

Ultrasounds have moved beyond the grainy, indecipherable images of the past. Indeed, 3D ultrasounds give you a much clearer and sharper look at your baby—and their little features. Here's everything you need to know about 3D baby ultrasounds, including the cost, benefits, and how they compare to 2D and 4D ultrasounds.

What Is a 3D Ultrasound?

Like their two-dimensional (2D) 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 abdominal ultrasound. First, the doctor or ultrasound technician will rub ultrasound gel on your belly and then move a transducer across the area. The transducer, which looks a bit like a wand or remote control, directs the sound waves toward your uterus and the fetus inside it, giving you a picture of your developing baby. The images appear on a screen where your provider can read information and save image stills.

A 3D ultrasound can be performed anytime during pregnancy, either in addition to or instead of a traditional 2D ultrasound. Medical professionals may prefer conducting them between approximately 24 and 34 weeks, during which the baby will be developed enough to be viewed properly. There’s also less risk that fluid or positioning in the pelvis will block results.

Couple Holding Picture of Ultrasound

The Benefits of 3D Baby Ultrasounds

Because the images are much sharper and clearer in a 3D ultrasound, they can allow your doctor to identify potential problems with your baby's development.

"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," she adds.

And from an expecting parent's perspective, 3D ultrasounds provide a much better look at your baby's face, which makes this new technology even more exciting for the parents-to-be.

How Much Does a 3D Ultrasound Cost?

Since 2D ultrasounds still give your doctor a good look at your baby's progression, many 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 experts recommend you avoid anyway).

Since most health insurance plans, including Medicare, don't cover 3D or 4D ultrasounds, you'll likely have to pay for the procedure yourself. Out-of-pocket costs can vary based on your location and provider, so 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 is generally considered safe for you and your baby when done under the supervision of a trained medical professional. However, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers to avoid "keepsake images" and heart monitors performed outside of a health care provider's office, as they may pose some risks to your developing baby.

The safest bet is to schedule your ultrasounds based on your provider's advice. But there is never any harm in asking for printouts to share with family and friends!

The Difference Between 3D and 4D Ultrasound

So what is a 4D ultrasound? While 3D ultrasounds produce clear three-dimensional still images 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 your little one is 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 parents 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 ensuring 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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that expectant parents avoid the types of "keepsake" ultrasound images and videos that are now available commercially and marketed to expecting parents. Although medically necessary ultrasounds aren’t shown to cause harm when performed by trained health care professionals, ultrasound 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. "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
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