Special Report: Safety of 3D & 4D elective ultrasounds investigated

Stephanie Lum investigates safety of 3D & 4D elective ultrasounds
Juliet Agustin (inset)
Juliet Agustin (inset)
Darrah Yamamoto
Darrah Yamamoto
Dr. Angela Pratt
Dr. Angela Pratt

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's like a photo shoot, only this one's happening inside the womb.

"Oh, he's moving plenty for you today! Awe, look at those chubby cheeks!" said Ultrasound Technician Juliet Agustin.

With lightning fast fingers, Agustin pushes a couple of buttons and turns several knobs as she moves an ultrasound wand across the belly of Darrah Yamamoto. An image of Yamamoto's unborn son appears on the screen.  He doesn't know he's being spied on. His eyes are closed and he holds up his hands to his face as if to hide.

"He seems camera shy!" exclaimed Agustin.

At "First Look Ultrasound" in Aiea, excited moms-to-be come to get not just a glimpse, but several different views of their unborn child.

"We use a state of the art ultrasound machine which offers 2D which is the basic black and white image. This is what they use at a doctor's office. We can see the profile of the baby. We can see their bones and their heart beating."

She punches a button and the image on the monitor transforms into a 3 dimensional picture.

"This is 3D. We can rotate the image to get a look at the baby from several different angles.  3D is a high-definition still picture. 4D is the baby moving in real-time. We can capture the babies yawning, kicking and smiling.  We've even seen them give shakas!  4D allows us to see much more definition in the face and brings out the babies facial features," said Agustin.

"We get a lot of local moms and military moms who want to show their husbands who are on deployment, a picture or movie of their child. After seeing their baby for the first time, for a lot of moms, it makes the experience of being pregnant more real. They are able to bond with their baby. Some also make better health choices because they can actually see a real life growing inside them," said Agustin.

How does a 3D & 4D ultrasound produce such amazing images?  High frequency sound waves are emitted from the ultrasound wand into the mother's womb. They bounce off surfaces and send data to a computer which processes that data to generate the images that you see on the screen.

The technology is pretty precise. If you look at 3D pictures of babies in the womb and compare them to pictures of them after they're born, you will see they are a close match.

Darrah Yamamoto, like many moms-to-be, got hooked on these elective ultrasounds, which are not ordered by a doctor or covered by insurance..but  purely for entertainment purposes.

"It's just unbelievable how technology advanced to allow me to be able to see what my baby is going to look like! I can't tell if it looks more like me or the father?" said Yamamoto.

At the end of Darrah's visit, she'll get a DVD 4D movie of her baby and a CD of 3D images. Depending on what package you purchase, not just at this facility but at other ultrasound businesses, you could spend anywhere from $50.00 to hundreds of dollars for a chance to see your unborn baby.

The desire to take a peek into the womb has driven thousands of couples to seek these services. Hop online and you'll see an array of 3D pictures and 4D videos posted by proud parents across the nation. While it's all the rage, there is a debate over the safety of these popular imaging services.

The concern has nothing to do with the way an ultrasound works by emitting sound waves, but apparently, the heat the ultrasound wand gives off and the uncertainty of its effects on a developing baby.

"There are no good studies of what an ultrasound does, but ultrasound itself is an energy source and what it does is it does heat up cells," said Dr. Benton Chun. "Generally, when you are doing ultrasounds to look at fetal anatomy there's usually constant movement so there shouldn't be any negative effect. A 3D & 4D ultrasound uses more energy because you have to take multiple views but there are no studies that show how many ultrasounds are safe."

"It is sound waves, not radiation. In and of itself it is relatively safe. Chances are a lot of moms have had these entertainment ultrasounds done and more than likely your child is going to be just fine but we don't know what the risks are," said Dr. Angela Pratt.

While there is no real proof of the negative effects of a 3D & 4D ultrasound, just to be safe, doctors say moms should try to limit their exposure to them and follow some important guidelines.

"The recommendations are to keep the visit or the ultrasound to less than 30 minutes, to do it only once a month or once and to do these after you've had prenatal obstetrical care and you've had a diagnostic ultrasound," said Dr. Pratt.

It's also a good idea to check with your doctor first and make sure your ultrasound technician is trained and certified before you enjoy these special moments with your baby.

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