For most new parents, having an ultrasound is an incredibly special moment because it’s usually the first time that they get to see their developing baby and learn whether or not everything is going well with the pregnancy. And, because of the advances in ultrasound technology, mothers will typically get to see their baby in 3-D or even 4-D imagery.

“At 10-12 weeks they’ll have the opportunity to look at their baby which will be anywhere for 4-5 centimeters,” says Chris Lehr, a sonographer with Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. “We’ll be able to identify a heart rate at that time, which is probably the funnest thing for a new parent.”

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Ultrasound images are created by taking a probe, and applying it to the baby’s skin. There are sound waves generated by a crystal in the transducer that are sent into the patient and depending on the characteristics of the tissue, it will send back images in various ways through the transducer and into the computer, or ultrasound machine, which generates the image.

Dr. John Wendel, a radiologist at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, says there are multiple reasons to take pictures of a baby in utero.

“During the first 10 weeks, the primary reason is if a mother is experiencing pain or bleeding,” says Wendel. “Later on, from about the 10th to the 14th week, we will scan for genetic disorders – like Downs syndrome. Most typically, if everything has gone well during the pregnancy, the sonographer will do a full physical exam on the baby while it is still inside of mother…usually at around 18 to 20 weeks.”

During a fetal survey, they evaluate the entire child, from the brain, to the face, brain, intestines, bones; really identifying a baby and all the parts of a human body.

One of the advantages that ultrasound has over other imaging technology, is that it doesn’t use radiation to take the pictures.  Wendel says that when a baby is developing, it is particularly sensitive to radiation, and because ultrasound uses sound beams to generate images instead of radiation, it is the preferred technique.

“But nonetheless,” says Wendel, “Moms don’t create their own ultrasound waves when they have a baby. It’s not part of the natural environment. Anything that’s not part of the baby’s natural environment, we try to minimize as much as possible, to be as safe as we possibly can be.”

Today, non-OB patients benefit from improved ultrasound technology, too. Ultrasounds are commonly being used to locate health problems like blood clots, gall stones, and kidney stones.

Learn more about ultrasounds and other screening tests during pregnancy.