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A Window Into the Womb

New technology is allowing parents the clearest view yet of their baby-to-be: lifelike, high-definition color pictures and videos from ultrasounds in 3-D and even 4-D (they show fetal movements in "real time") that make the routine fuzzy 2-D black-and-white images look almost old-fashioned. Not all doctors have this new technology, however, and insurance usually won't cover it unless there is a reason to suspect a problem, such as a cleft lip or clubfoot. So it's not surprising that dozens of businesses have cropped up to cater to parents who want to have these amazing first pictures. But is this practice safe?

"My concern is that some people are doing this without proper training," says Dolores Pretorius, M.D., a professor of radiology at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the benefits of ultrasounds performed for nonmedical reasons. These include the potential for improved parent-child bonding and healthier maternal lifestyles. But although ultrasound waves have never been proven dangerous, she says there are some concerns about prolonged exposure in the "keepsake video" setting. "We know that 2-D ultrasound is safe at the levels we use, but someone who isn't properly trained might sit and use it for an hour to get the best picture, or a patient might come back week after week -- and we don't know if that kind of exposure can add up and cause problems. For example, right now, it's recommended that we avoid using Doppler ultrasound in the first trimester because it's been shown to raise temperature in the uterus," she says.

And there is unease that an ultrasound that's not done by a trained professional might give parents false reassurance about the health of their baby-to-be. "Some patients think that the keepsake session is a diagnostic exam and that everything is fine afterward," says Lawrence Platt, M.D., a maternal-fetal specialist and director of the Center for Fetal Medicine and Women's Ultrasound, in Los Angeles. For some women, he says, bad news about their baby comes as a shock after having had a keepsake ultrasound.

Though the Food and Drug Administration and the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine have come out against the use of ultrasound for "keepsake imaging," stating that it's a "nonapproved use of a medical device," some experts say the procedure should be allowed. "Keepsake imaging may not be strictly 'medical,' but it meets an intangible parental need," says Robert Wolfson, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Colorado Springs who is lobbying government and medical organizations to embrace the trend and set a standard for the technique. "It can create a unique parent-child connection that we don't always see with 2-D ultrasound."

Talk to your doctor if you'd like to have a keepsake ultrasound: She may be able to recommend a reputable place. But remember that a snapshot doesn't replace your diagnostic ultrasound.