Person pointing at ultrasound screenShare on Pinterest
Oleksii Syrotkin/Stocksy United

Ultrasound technology has been used by doctors since the late 1950s to diagnose fetal abnormalities during pregnancy. Today, scans are performed much more widely for things like dating pregnancy, measuring the fetus, and diagnosing various medical issues.

Most recently, consumer ultrasound shops have started popping up and are using ultrasound scans — from the standard 2-D up to 5-D — in a very new way.

Sometimes called vanity scans, higher dimension ultrasounds offered at these shops can now be purchased on demand, and provide an opportunity to connect to-be parents with their babies.

Are these scans safe? And what is 5-D, anyway? Here’s what you need to know before you go.

Before we look at the 5-D option, it helps to explain the classic ultrasounds that you’re more likely to encounter at your OB’s office.

2-D ultrasound

The most classic form of ultrasound you may be familiar with is the 2-D scan. It produces a flat, black and white image of your baby using high frequency sound waves. As an ultrasound technician runs the probe over your belly, the sound waves bounce off your baby’s body to create images.

Early on in pregnancy, 2-D images may be collected using a transvaginal probe to help date a pregnancy or see where in the uterus implantation has taken place. As your baby gets bigger, these scans can be done abdominally (on the stomach), such as during the first trimester screening or second trimester growth scan.

You may have a 2-D ultrasound at any time throughout your pregnancy. It’s the most common scan your doctor’s office will offer to monitor the growth and development of your baby.

Aside from the profile view, the technician will try to capture for you, you may find 2-D ultrasounds hard to interpret. (“That’s an elbow?”)

3-D ultrasound

The level of detail is greater on a 3-D ultrasound. It allows you to see a 3-D image of your baby’s length, width, and depth — and even recognizable facial features, like your little one’s tiny lips, nose, cheeks, and eyes.

While the detail is greater, the way these images are created isn’t much different from a 2-D scan. Instead, 3-D ultrasound uses a slightly different probe to take multiple images at once on different planes and then uses special software to produce its 3-D images.

It’s becoming more common for OB offices to have 3-D ultrasound technology. The best time to get a 3-D scan, of course, is when and if your doctor recommends it.

But if you choose to have one at a commercial shop, your best chance of getting good images is between weeks 26 and 34 of pregnancy, according to Baby Impressions 4D Ultrasound in Greenville, South Carolina.

During this time, your baby is big enough for you to see their sex and facial features but still small enough to move around and get good pictures.

4-D ultrasound

A 4-D ultrasound is basically a 3-D ultrasound — just in motion! With this level of scan, you’re able to see a 3-D moving video of your baby. This means you may be able to see things like smiles, frowns, and all other little movements — arm waving, kicking, thumb sucking, etc. — in real time or turned into a recording.

First View Ultrasound in Westminster, Colorado, shares that the best time to get 4-D images is between weeks 24 and 32 weeks. If you’re having twins, try to get your appointment between weeks 22 and 26 or your babies may be getting too crowded and it’ll be difficult to get clear images of each baby.

You may hear 5-D ultrasound referred to as HD or live ultrasound. It’s not terribly different from 3-D or 4-D scans, and it uses the same technology. The main difference is that it’s processed through software that captures higher resolution images and gives the picture a flesh tone color to make your baby look even more like, well, a baby.

Here is Baby in Midland, Texas, shares that the best time frame for getting good images with a 5-D ultrasound is also similar to 3-D and 4-D — 24 to 32 weeks — as it’s only the processing of the images that’s different, not the scan itself.

Ultrasounds use high frequency sound waves that bounce off the baby’s body to create their images. This means they’re noninvasive, unlike amniocentesis or other invasive tests you may encounter.

No research has found any major red flags with ultrasound technology, particularly when it’s performed by a trained technician at a hospital or clinic.

That said, commercial shops, like First View Ultrasound, explain that their services aren’t intended to take the place of regular prenatal care and diagnostic scanning. If you haven’t been to your doctor to confirm your pregnancy or to track your baby’s growth, make an appointment to do so.

While many of these shops also share that there’s no specific evidence suggesting ultrasound in any dimension is unsafe, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend ultrasounds outside of the medical setting.

In particular, the FDA’s concern is that outside of hospitals and clinics, there’s no standard for how long ultrasound sessions take place, how many sessions take place, what machines are used, or who performs the ultrasound. Risk may go up with longer, more frequent, and medically unnecessary exposure.

Again, a 5-D ultrasound is actually very similar to a 3-D and 4-D scan — it’s the processing on the images that’s different. So, while your doctor may be able to perform 3-D and 4-D scans, it’s unlikely they’ll provide the 5-D service just for fun.

Higher level ultrasounds at your prenatal appointments are reserved for when doctors suspect there’s a complication with the pregnancy or a possible medical issue with the baby. In other words, these types of scans are used as a diagnostic tool versus entertainment.

You can pay for 5-D ultrasounds at commercial shops across the United States and beyond. Some of these shops employ trained ultrasound technicians, while some may not. Be sure to ask plenty of questions about the credentials of the technicians before you go as well as the equipment they use.

If you’re seeking a 5-D scan, consider calling local OB-GYN offices to find out if they offer this service at a charge.

Speak with your doctor about the advantages and disadvantages of getting keepsake ultrasound scans of your baby.

There isn’t much evidence that 5-D ultrasounds are harmful, but they’re not recommended by the FDA, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine.

In a medical setting, detailed scans can help you visualize potential medical issues so your doctor can better explain them to you. Otherwise, 5-D scans allow you to see what your baby looks like and may help with bonding.

Many commercial ultrasound shops also allow your partner, family members, or friends to view the images in real time as well, which can be a fun event to share with the people you love.

On the flip side, 5-D scans may not be covered under medical insurance. You’ll likely need to pay for them out of pocket.

The FDA also explains that ultrasound may heat the tissue where the probe is placed and possibly create tiny bubbles (cavitation) in these tissues. The long-term effects of heat and cavitation (if any) on the baby aren’t fully known at this point, so the FDA says that ultrasounds should be performed only when medically necessary.

Ultrasound scans performed by trained professionals are a safe way to help keep tabs on your baby’s well-being during pregnancy. Getting a keepsake 5-D ultrasound of your baby may be appealing, but you may want to talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of these types of scans before you sign up for one.

Remember that commercial ultrasounds aren’t a substitute for regular prenatal care. If you’re worried about issues with your baby, your doctor can guide you through different markers on your medical scans or suggest other testing as needed.