• U.S.

Health: Womb with a View

2 minute read
Sanjay Gupta, M.D.

For many expectant parents, nine months is just too long. Not willing to wait for the birth of their child and the accompanying flash photos, parents-to-be are shelling out $200 and more to ultrasound centers with cutesy names like Prenatal Peek and Womb with a View for high-res, golden-hued ultrasound images of fetuses in their amniotic homes. It’s not hard to see the appeal. The latest advances in ultrasound technology–from grainy 2D to glorious 4D with accompanying DVD–produce images that are impressive, showing facial features, hair, fingers, toes and even a fetus’ sex. Some companies throw in a sound track to go with Baby’s first video.

But there may be risks. The FDA issued a firm warning earlier this year in its consumer magazine. Although there are no reported cases of ultrasound causing harm to a fetus, the FDA SAYS we simply don’t know enough about the long-term effects of repeatedly sending high doses of energy across a mother’s womb. After all, these ultrasonic waves are the same as those used at higher exposure to break up kidney stones. Laboratory studies have shown that even at low levels, ultrasounds can produce physical effects in tissue, including jarring vibrations and temperature increases. John Hayes, editor in chief of Diagnostic Imaging Magazine, is concerned that entertainment ultrasounds may give parents a false sense of security. He is troubled by the fact that some expectant mothers are forgoing standard prenatal visits after a “reassuring” visit to an ultrasound center.

None of that has slowed the spread of ultrasound-imaging machines. The devices, which can cost as much as $200,000, are even popping up in the offices of obstetricians eager to please patients who expect to get the same services from their doctors that they can buy in a shopping mall.

If you really want a prenatal keepsake, the risks of getting just one are probably pretty low. But first clear it with your doctor. Then limit your exposure to 20 min. or less, and make sure that whoever performs the procedure is a trained sonographer. Or you can just wait a few more months and be surprised. –With reporting by A. Chris Gajilan

Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com