Baby’s first photo -in utero

Recreational sonograms are popular, but are they safe?


Danielle Braff


Baby Makayla Quin was blocking her face as her parents watched, hoping to get a glimpse of what she would look like. Finally, it happened. Makayla moved her hands away from her face, and her parents saw her for the first time. Makayla had been in her mother’s womb for 28 weeks, and her parents desperately wanted a picture. 

“We got the DVD, the movies and the stills,” says Mike Pfile, father of Makayla, now nearly 1. Pfile showed Makayla’s grandparents the DVD, and saved the still pictures to put in Makayla’s baby book. “The basic reason we showed everyone is because we felt it was neat to say, ‘Look, here’s our daughter,’ ” he says.

Businesses such as Stork Snapshots in Naperville, where Makayla’s picture was taken, are popping up throughout Chicago and around the nation to fill a niche—parents-to-be so anxious to see their babies that they will pay lots of money for pictures while the baby is still in the womb. Enter the recreational, or keepsake, ultrasound.

Ultrasounds have been around for decades, and obstetricians use them to determine how the baby is developing and whether he or she has any birth defects.

The physician’s ultrasound serves a medical purpose. While the recreational ultrasound is filling parents’ desire for their yet-born baby’s pictures. But at what cost to the baby? Is this procedure safe?

No, says the Food and Drug Administration, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and many doctors.

The FDA has stopped short of issuing an official warning but in January an article was posted on the agency’s Web site warning of the possible problems. And in a recently issued 23-line position paper, the FDA concluded, “We believe the use of fetal ultrasound for nonmedical purposes presents serious public health issues.”

But despite the cautions, parents are doing it anyway. Some doctors say it’s because their profession has failed to meet the needs of parents-to-be.  Costs, benefits Josh Copel, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University and a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says if physicians were more creative with the way they do their ultrasounds, parents would not need to look for outside photos.

“In the medical community, many practices have been lousy at the warm- and-fuzzy side of doing this,” Copel says. When parents request it, he makes tapes of the ultrasound and gives them pictures to take home.

Recreational ultrasounds give parents a look at their little person in three dimensions. Instead of the two-dimensional blurry and unrecognizable photo from a medical ultrasound, recreational ultrasounds offer parents defined pictures, complete with a DVD that shows the baby moving and touching its face.

Stork Snapshots charges $175 plus a $30 session fee for its most popular package, which includes a DVD, a CD-ROM and lots of photographs. In contrast, doctors charge as up to $600 for a photo parents may not even get to take home—although health insurance is more likely to pay for that procedure.

The lower cost of recreational sonograms may be the only benefit, say obstetricians, most of whom condemn the practice. They contend the unnecessary procedure may eventually prove harmful to the baby and may obscure urgent medical problems. “All the OB/GYN institutes have issued statements about this being not the right thing to do,” says Judith Hibbard, maternal fetal medicine specialist and University of Chicago obstetrics and gynecology professor. “Nobody thinks that ethically these should be done. It’s an abuse of medical technology.”

The FDA’s position is that “ultrasound is a form of energy that can affect the fetus.” The people who do the procedures are often “not well trained” and the 3-D machines are advanced technology, meaning that mother and baby’s exposure is longer and at higher intensities than a medical ultrasound. 

Hibbard says one of the biggest problems with nonmedical ultrasounds is that no studies have yet been done to see the future effects on the baby. Some parents get recreational ultrasounds every month, and no one yet knows whether the constant stress of the machines will affect the child.

Hibbard also says, the keepsake ultrasound may give parents a false sense of their baby’s health. “If the mother assumes that she had an ultrasound and everything is fine, she may not seek health care for something that requires it,” says John Seeds, obstetrics and gynecology chairman at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists fellow.

Bonding with baby While doctors warn parents against taking fun photos of their fetus, Pat Ebeling, co-owner of Stork Snapshots says her business is safe, and she won’t take pictures of the babies until they are 20 weeks old and parents must bring in proof they are seeing a physician. Ebeling, who is a physician, says she uses the same technology as the doctors, and her ultrasound technicians are certified and trained at accredited schools.

She doesn’t check to see if the baby has birth defects, but she says she makes sure there is a heart beat, counts the number of babies in the mother’s uterus and discovers the gender. Most mothers come to Stork Snapshots once, but the company allows them up to four visits. 

Instead of looking at the harm the these ultrasounds can cause, Ebeling stresses the benefits. “We opened this because it’s an amazing way for mothers to bond with their babies,” she says. “They could put a face to what they’re feeling.”

Makayla’s mother, Heather Spring, echoes Ebeling’s sentiments in a phone conversation, saying the ultrasound experience brought her closer to her daughter-to-be and made motherhood real. “You know it’s a baby and you know that you’re pregnant and eventually there’s going to be a child out of it,” Spring says. “But even then, it’s not entirely real to you. This really helped show that there was a person in there.”

What can it hurt? Spring and her husband, Pfile, say they were aware of doctors’ warnings before getting the recreational ultrasound, but after hearing so many differing opinions about what can and can’t hurt the unborn baby, they figured one recreational ultrasound couldn’t do much damage.

Parents are ignoring warnings, and recreational ultrasounds are so popular because of physicians’ failures with ultrasounds, says Copel of Yale. “We did this to ourselves,” Copel says, condemning obstetricians who won’t allow husbands and friends to take part and watch the ultrasound, or those who don’t encourage the parents to enjoy the process.

Copel says if the medical field took cues from the recreational ultrasounds, they could combine the practice, making the ultrasound experience something to remember forever.   Until then, he recommends recreational ultrasounds only after a medical one. 

Danielle Braff is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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