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 her. 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 2. "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 to fill a niche—parents-to-be so anxious to see their babies that they will pay for pictures while the baby is in the womb. Enter the recreational, or keepsake, ultrasound.

While taking an in-utero picture of your baby may seem harmless, more experts are warning that these ultrasounds are not a good, safe choice.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement in August saying officials were "concerned" about the "misuse of diagnostic ultrasound equipment."

The updated statement warns that while medical ultrasounds are safe, "casual exposure to ultrasound, especially during pregnancy, should be avoided" and "exposing the fetus to ultrasound with no anticipation of medical benefit is not justified."

Costs, benefits

Ultrasounds have been around for decades. Obstetricians use them to monitor the baby’s development and look for birth defects.

The physician’s ultrasound serves a medical purpose, while the recreational ultrasound fills parents’ desire to see their yet-unborn baby—something that concerns the FDA, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine and many doctors.

The FDA warns: "Laboratory studies have shown that diagnostic levels of ultrasound can produce physical effects in tissue, such as mechanical vibrations and rise in temperature."

This new FDA caution is the strongest one to date, but it is more of the same type of warnings the agency has been giving the medical community since 1994.

Despite that statement, Jennifer Williams, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Health, says this is a "relatively new issue that has not been on the radar screen. ... We're not prepared to say anything about it now."

And parents are doing it anyway. Some doctors say it’s because their profession has failed to meet the needs of parents-to-be.

Dr. 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 their ultrasounds, parents would not need outside photos.

"In the medical community, many practices have been lousy at the warm and fuzzy side of doing this," Copel says.

Instead of the 2-D blurry and unrecognizable photo from a medical ultrasound, recreational ultrasounds offer parents defined pictures and DVDs.

Stork Snapshots charges $80 to $250 for ultrasounds, plus extra for more photos and DVDs, according to its Web site. In contrast, doctors charge up to $600 for a photo parents may not even get to take home—though 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 medical problems.

"All the OB/GYN institutes have issued statements about this being not the right thing to do," says Dr. Judith Hibbard, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. "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 performing the procedures are often "not well trained" and the 3-D machines are advanced technology, meaning the mother’s and baby’s exposure is longer and more intense than a medical ultrasound.

Hibbard says no one has studied the effects on the baby.

The keepsake ultrasound may also give parents a false sense of security. "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 Dr. John Seeds, obstetrics and gynecology chair at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists fellow.

Bonding with baby

While doctors warn against the practice, Pat Ebeling, co-owner of Stork Snapshots, says it’s safe. She won’t take pictures of babies until they are 20 weeks old and parents must prove they are seeing a physician. Ebeling, who is a physician, says she uses the same technology as doctors, and her ultrasound technicians are certified.

She checks for a heart beat, counts the number of babies and determines the gender. Most mothers come to Stork Snapshots once, but the company allows up to four visits. "We opened this because it’s an amazing way for mothers to bond with their babies," Ebeling says.

Makayla’s mother, Heather Spring, says the ultrasound made motherhood real. "This really helped show that there was a person in there," she says.

Spring and her husband, Pfile, say they were aware of doctors’ warnings, but after hearing differing opinions, they figured one time wouldn’t hurt.

Without government regulation, though, it's a hard issue for parents to navigate.

Copel recommends recreational ultrasounds only after a medical one.

Danielle Braff is a Chicago-based writer.

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