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Prenatal Portraits: Darling or Dangerous?

Many businesses offer ultrasound pictures and videos of unborn babies for entertainment purposes, but some experts say these fun pictures could be harmful.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Angela and Michael watched with joy as their second child sucked its thumb and kicked up its toes. Their delight was tempered with some disappointment, however, as they couldn't completely see their baby's face.

"My placenta obstructed the view of the head, the forehead, and the eyes," says Angela, who is seven months pregnant. She and her husband went to a private ob-gyn clinic in New Jersey that performs keepsake prenatal ultrasounds.

For $180, the couple was promised four 5X7 photos and a 30-minute videotape of their little one in the womb, set to lullaby music. Plus, since they had a blurry image of the baby's face, they were offered a repeat visit at no charge.

The Souvenir Sonogram Frontier

Hundreds of parents like Michael and Angela have taken advantage of the latest ultrasound technology to get a sneak peek of their unborn children.

Compared to the traditional 2-D images, the 3-D portraits and videos offer much more detail of the fetuses' features, such as the face, fingers, toes, heart, and genitals. They also promise to highlight endearing womb activity such as yawns, winks, kicks, rubbing of noses, and thumb sucking.

Keepsake ultrasounds have become so popular that dozens of sites have opened up nationwide. The centers have names such as Little Sprout Imaging, Baby Insight, Peekaboobaby, and First Look Sonogram.

One company, Fetal Fotos, has branches in 22 states. Another firm, 3DBabyVu, has four locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and claims to perform up to 200 screenings per site each month.

The FDA and several medical organizations such as the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) have come out against the so-called entertainment sonograms, citing potential health hazards with non-medically justified ultrasound energy and possible misinterpretation of sonograms by patients and unskilled personnel.

The FDA considers it illegal for anyone to promote, sell, or lease ultrasound equipment for the purpose of making keepsake fetal videos, particularly if there is no medical prescription.

The official disapprovals have apparently not swayed some doctors and patients.

Angela, who had received an attractive brochure in the mail for prenatal portraits, was initially concerned about the controversy. But when she broached the topic with her obstetrician, he told her the ultrasound would probably do no harm to the baby. He warned her, though, that the pictures might not be as good as advertised.

Some prenatal portrait centers claim they first obtain approval from their clients' doctors before performing any ultrasounds. Others take the keepsake images after a limited diagnostic scan or conduct the entertainment screens after hours in doctors' offices.

The diverse makeup of each keepsake ultrasound business makes it difficult for the FDA to take action. In the past, officials have sent warning letters to rule breakers and seized equipment.

The federal government has limited power and staff to stem the growth of keepsake ultrasound entities, however. The agency only has the authority to regulate the sale and distribution of medical devices. Jurisdiction over ultrasound services and behavior of technicians and doctors belong to the individual states.

Nonetheless, because of the increasing number of entertainment ultrasound businesses, the government is currently reviewing its enforcement options.

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