Are ultrasound scans safe?

Could ultrasound scans damage my baby?

When you're pregnant, the most important thing to you is the safety of your baby. This article will tell you more about how ultrasound works and why ultrasound is used to scan babies, as well as how safe it is.

Ultrasound scans have been used in antenatal care for decades and so far the reassuring news is there's no evidence that they cause any harm to your unborn baby if used according to guidelines.

The NHS provides ultrasound scans at around 12 and 20 weeks to check the progress of your pregnancy, and several types of ultrasound scan are available privately.

What is ultrasound and why is it used to scan babies?

Ultrasound waves are sound waves at the extremes of the acoustic spectrum well above the human hearing threshold, which are used to make up a detailed picture of a baby in your womb. The sound waves bounce off the baby, creating a moving image on the screen.

Ultrasound baby scans are incredibly useful and an important indicator to both parents and health professionals.  The scans can be used to check:

Most parents say they find an ultrasound scan incredibly reassuring and that it gives them peace of mind during an anxious time - particularly if they have had a previous pregnancy loss or have had fertility issues. Many families also find it valuable to have time to bond with their baby during pregnancy. Remember that ultrasound scanning is an entirely optional service and some parents choose not to have it.

If a problem is discovered, some may be treated in the womb thanks to advances in surgical techniques. In other cases, where a problem is not treatable, parents can be given appropriate support and counselling to consider their choices.

Can ultrasound be dangerous?

Ultrasound pregnancy scans remain the safest way of checking the health of an unborn baby without exposing mother and child to the hazards of radiation.

At very high doses (not doses used for baby scans) ultrasound is capable of damaging biological tissue through heating up tissue. However, it's important to bear in mind that the levels used in diagnostic ultrasound (including baby scans) are much lower and do not heat up tissue beyond the normal physiological range. All ultrasound equipment also carries heat sensors which monitor temperatures for added safety and sonographers follow strict professional guidelines on exposure.

All sonographers employed by Ultrasound Direct are fully qualified and trained in pregnancy ultrasound and their priority is always your baby’s health and the medical purpose of your scan. Baby scans are not performed unnecessarily, and your baby’s welfare and wellbeing will always be their top priority.

All our sonographers are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council or the Register of Clinical Technologists to ensure that they are always up to date with the latest safety guidelines - and most of them also work in their local NHS.

You can always ask your private ultrasound provider where they are registered and about their training to make sure you're getting the safest possible scan for your baby.

Research about ultrasound scans

The Report of the Independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation said the available evidence did not suggest the lower levels of ultrasound used for diagnostic purposes (meaning the type of ultrasound used for baby scans) had effects on several outcomes. These included perinatal mortality (the technical term for stillbirths and deaths in the first week of life) and childhood cancers. This means that the research showed that ultrasound scanning does not have an effect on the likelihood of these things happening.

Whilst it's true some studies have pointed to an association between ultrasound scanning and an increased prevalence of left-handedness, crucially experts reviewing the evidence said the studies were 'weak'. The authors of one study concluded that no cause and effect relationship had been established.

More research into the safety of ultrasound is ongoing, but the fact that no problems have so far emerged over many decades of use is very reassuring.

A parent's view

Lucy Thompson, 41-year-old mum of Jake, four months, says she was initially concerned about the effects of ultrasound scanning, as she was nervous about affecting her baby's health because of her age.

'I have two older children aged 16 and 11 and didn't give ultrasound scanning a second thought back then but this time I was more cautious as I was over 40.'

'Both of the scans I had at booking and 20 weeks were incredibly reassuring though and stopped me worrying. I couldn't believe how much the scans had moved on in terms of quality too - the picture on my scan was so clear and we loved showing our older children the videos too.'