That moment when we first saw our unborn child glowing through the light of a high-resolution sonogram was far more emotional than I thought it would be. I wanted the technician to stay there all day and let us watch her every move. But I'm glad he didn't; pregnancy sonogram risks are a reality for the unborn baby.
These days, it seems almost impossible to imagine a time before sonograms when couples had to wait a full nine months before glimpsing their babies, let alone being able to note if there was anything wrong. The sonogram revolutionized pregnancy, and for a woman my age, it played a crucial role in helping us rule out some of the more common risk factors.
Sonograms, also referred to as ultrasounds, generate images through high frequency sound waves (above the range of human hearing). Since the 1960s, they replaced x-rays for high risk pregnancies, but have also become commonly used with low risk women as well.
At around 14 weeks, we were able to measure fluid in the neck of our baby that can be an indicator of Downs Syndrome and other serious chromosomal issues. At 20 weeks we saw all ten fingers and toes and a heart that looked as healthy and normal as it gets. Without those peeks, we would have had a much more difficult (and stressful) time considering the risks at my age (a one in thirty-nine chance of Downs).
And being able to see my daughter floating inside of me made the pregnancy that much more of a reality—something at 40 I never thought was going to happen. But a picture's worth a thousand words, and these images have come to be truly priceless. My partner has even created artwork out of the pregnancy sonogram pictures—framing them with the caption "Who Will You Grow Up To Be?" We wonder about this and a million other things every day.
Of course, while the sonogram has helped to rule out some serious risks, it's not a guarantee, and any number of issues can still be a reality. Now, at 31 weeks, it's being recommended that in a few more weeks we have one last sonogram to make sure our baby is in the right position for birth and that the placenta is also properly positioned. We haven't decided whether we'll do it or not though, especially after learning that sonogram risks, while not extremely common, do exist.
At our second sonogram session, we actually had three: the technician first did the bulk of the measurements. Then, the doctor came in and did a follow up because my placenta appeared to be low. To get a better sense if that was the case or not, she wanted a closer look at the cervix and did a vaginal sonogram (the one Republicans want to force on women choosing to have abortions). It was approximately three full hours of being songrammed…and a bit overwhelming.
According to Lauren Feder, M.D., a nationally recognized physician who specializes in primary care medicine, pediatrics and homeopathy, the long term pregnancy sonogram risks on the fetus are not fully known, especially in women who have them repeatedly. But some risks include undetected fetal abnormalities (40 percent are missed according to one study she cites), which can be stressful for parents. The sonograms also heat up tissue, which could cause cavitation—a situation where gas pockets collapse and leave a potential for toxic chemical reactions in the baby. Songrams have also been connected with causing some right-handed children to become left-handed as a result of slight damage to the brain (left-handedness otherwise is not a sign of brain damage). Sonograms may also trigger early labor, premature birth, miscarriages, and other issues at birth including perinatal death. There may also be a higher risk for learning disabilities, including delayed speech development and dyslexia.
While still considered harmless by the medical community, sonogram risks are something for every pregnant woman to consider. While sonograms can be vital tools in high risk pregnancies, if you're not in that category, let your doctor know that you'd prefer to go with as few sonograms as possible throughout your pregnancy. While a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, so is the element of surprise, and you'll most likely enjoy taking pictures of your child much more once they arrive. I know I will.
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Image: Jill Ettinger