So-called "prenatal portraits" and ultrasound parties, in which parents-to-be visit commercial outfits for the chance to see and coo at their growing babies, may be trendy, but the Food and Drug Administration is speaking out against both practices.
This week, the group issued a revised consumer update discouraging the use of fetal ultrasounds and heartbeat monitors to create "keepsake images" and videos, emphasizing that ultrasounds should be performed only when there is a medical need -- and under the supervision of appropriately trained medical professionals.
"Although there is a lack of evidence of any harm due to ultrasound imaging and heartbeat monitors, prudent use of these devices by trained health care providers is important," Shahram Vaezy, an FDA biomedical engineer, said in the update. "Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it can also produce very small bubbles (cavitation) in some tissues."
The FDA does not take issue with the prudent use of ultrasound in pregnancy by a woman's medical team. Ultrasounds can help OBGYNs and midwives determine whether a fetus is growing appropriately, revealing information about things such as a baby's age and position and a woman's amniotic fluid levels. Ultrasound images are also frequently used as an important screening tool for birth defects.
"Ultrasound in pregnancy has been very well studied, over many years, and has been categorically found to be a safe diagnostic tool -- in the context of a medical evaluation by trained professionals who use the tool in a way it's been designed to be used," Dr. Peter Gearhart, a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Huffington Post.
The questions raised by the current statement, Gearhart clarified, regard the safety of prolonged, repeated exposure to ultrasounds performed by technicians who have not been properly trained. Last year, NBC's "Today" reported on the growing fad of ultrasound parties to reveal a baby's gender or "just for fun."
"I classify these satellite facilities where you can have an ultrasound that has nothing to do with medicine as 'medutainment' ... it's the use of medical technology for entertainment purposes," Gearhart said.
The FDA is not the only major medical group to speak out against the non-medical use of ultrasound during pregnancy.
The American Institute of Ultrasound In Medicine, for example, acknowledged what it sees as growing pressure from patients for ultrasounds in order to boost bonding and provide reassurance, and called for "responsible" use of diagnostic fetal imaging by trained professionals -- a statement endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In its new update, the FDA also warned against the over-the-counter sale and use of fetal heartbeat monitors, which rely on Doppler ultrasound technology to listen to a baby's heart.
"When the product is purchased over the counter and used without consultation with a health care professional taking care of the pregnant woman, there is no oversight of how the device is used. Also, there is little or no medical benefit expected from the exposure," Vaezy said. "Furthermore, the number of sessions or the length of a session in scanning a fetus is uncontrolled, and that increases the potential for harm to the fetus and eventually the mother."
While the devices may provide some reassurance to mothers who, for one reason or another, are anxious about their pregnancies, Gearhart said, there are ultimately "too many variables associated with fetal heart rate monitoring for people who aren't trained in [how to] interpret the data to be able to use them appropriately."