Prenatal Ultrasound

A prenatal ultrasound scan is a diagnostic technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of your fetus.

  • Ultrasounds may be performed at various times throughout pregnancy for different reasons.
  • The test can provide valuable information, helping women and their health-care providers manage and care for the pregnancy and the fetus.

What is ultrasonography?

Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves and their echoes to make cross-sectional images of the fetus. Ultrasound produces no radiation and is painless.

  • The sound waves go through your skin and reflect or "echo" in a different way off of each part of the body, such as bone, fluid, and soft tissue.
  • These echoes form a picture.
  • The technique is similar to the echolocation used by bats and whales and the SONAR that guides ships and submarines.

Your ultrasound exam may include fetal Doppler, which is a type of ultrasound that measures the flow of blood through blood vessels.

  • The movement of blood cells causes a change in pitch of the reflected sound waves (called the Doppler effect).
  • Waveforms of the blood flow are shown on the ultrasound screen.
  • A computer collects and processes the sounds and creates graphs or color pictures that represent the flow of blood through the blood vessels.

When are prenatal ultrasounds typically done?

We’ve put together a list of the times in your pregnancy that your doctor may prescribe an ultrasound as well as what kind of information those ultrasounds will provide. 

In the first trimester:

  • to establish the dates of a pregnancy
  • to document heartbeat
  • to determine the number of fetuses and identify placental structures
  • to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage
  • to examine the uterus and other pelvic anatomy
  • to detect fetal abnormalities (in some cases)

Mid-trimester (sometimes called the 18-to-20 week scan):

  • to confirm pregnancy dates
  • to determine the number of fetuses
  • to assist in prenatal procedures
  • to detect fetal abnormalities
  • to check the amount of amniotic fluid
  • to examine blood flow patterns
  • to assess fetal well-being
  • to examine the placenta
  • to measure the length of the cervix
  • to monitor fetal growth

Third trimester:

  • to monitor fetal growth
  • to check the amount of amniotic fluid
  • to assess the placenta
  • to assess fetal well-being
  • to determine fetal position

How is an ultrasound scan performed?

Although the specific details of each procedure vary slightly, ultrasounds generally follow this process.

Two types of ultrasounds can be performed during pregnancy:

  • Transabdominal ultrasound: Gel is applied to the abdomen and the ultrasound transducer glides over the gel on the abdomen and pelvis to create the image.
  • Transvaginal ultrasound: A transducer is inserted into the vagina and rests against the back of the vagina to create an image.
    • A transvaginal ultrasound produces a sharper image and is often used in early pregnancy.

What kind of equipment do we use to perform ultrasounds?

  • Ultrasound machines are about the size of a grocery cart.
  • A TV screen for viewing the images is attached to the machine.
  • The room used for scanning has dim lighting so that the pictures can be seen more clearly.

Where are prenatal ultrasounds performed?

Prenatal ultrasound examinations are performed in the hospital’s Maternal Fetal Care Center by pediatric radiologists and sonographers from the Department of Radiology. These professionals are experts in fetal imaging, and their diagnoses guide treatment both before and after birth.