Your guide to ultrasounds

In the early stages of pregnancy – when you don’t quite believe there’s a baby growing inside your belly yet – you may feel desperate for evidence. You can’t feel your baby moving and don’t have a bump yet… So are they really in there? Sure, there’s that positive pregnancy test, and maybe some sneaky early pregnancy symptoms doing their thang – but can we get some solid PROOF up in here?!

Your first pregnancy ultrasound may provide some blessed reassurance. This scan can be pretty damn amazing, and will probably leave you in tearful awe. This is the first time you’ll see your baby! Ultrasound tissue supplies are crucial.

So let’s look at what to expect from ultrasounds during pregnancy: what they’re like, and most importantly… when you can get your hands on some sweet ultrasound pictures to show your friends!

What is an ultrasound and why do you need it?

Ultrasounds are so much more than a way to confirm your due date and your baby’s sex. Those details are just a happy bonus for moms who like to plan ahead. 

Your maternity care team uses ultrasound pictures and measurements to monitor your pregnancy, check on your baby’s health and development, and detect any abnormalities. 

The technology is pretty incredible, really. An ultrasound machine produces sound waves that bounce off the inside of your uterus, and translates the data into images on a screen. We don’t know if it’s sorcery or science* but it’s cool. (*It’s definitely science.) There’s even 3D baby ultrasound technology available these days, which produces high quality images of your baby’s face and features. (Button nose!)

Ultrasounds can be performed on different parts of the body for reasons outside of pregnancy too. But whether it’s for pregnancy or not, it needs to be performed by someone who’s done the necessary training and knows their sh*t. That will either be a specific ultrasound technologist (known as a sonographer) or your obstetrician if they’ve got the skills.

What are the different types of ultrasounds?

You may experience two types of ultrasound during pregnancy:

  • Transvaginal ultrasound – The more invasive of the two (involving a fun plastic tube up your vagina), this is often used for early pregnancy scans. For example, if you have an 8-week ultrasound or earlier, it can provide more accurate data when the fetus is still teenie tiny.
    Bladder advice: Please empty yourself before this one. There’s nothing worse than having someone aggressively poking at your full bladder from the inside.

  • Transabdominal ultrasound – This is the more common type of pregnancy ultrasound – like you see in the movies! Gel is applied to your belly and the transducer (special ultrasound device thingy) is rolled about around your pelvic area.
    Bladder advice: Drink up! A full bladder can help your sonographer see things more clearly.

Depending on what sort of data your medical team wants to get, you may be referred to get a specific type of transabdominal ultrasound. 

  • A specialized sonographic evaluation can detect fetal abnormalities.

  • A 3D ultrasound can help doctors look for facial abnormalities or neural tube defects.

  • A doppler ultrasound can provide details about your baby’s blood flow.

  • Fetal echocardiography looks specifically at your baby’s heart, and can help rule out congenital heart defects. (BTW – If you’re panicking during a scan, googling “when can you hear baby heartbeat on ultrasound” – it’s often not detected by transabdominal ultrasound until eight weeks.)

Routine ultrasounds in pregnancy

First trimester scans 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists points out that first trimester ultrasounds aren’t always standard because it’s too generally early to see the baby’s limbs and organs in detail. In some cases you might have one, though.

  • Dating scan – This may be recommended if you and your doctor can’t work out your due date. A sonographer can take measurements to estimate your baby’s gestational age (wildly accurately!), and flag any potential pregnancy complications.

  • 12-week ultrasound – Towards the very end of your first trimester, you’ll book in to see your baby! At around 12 weeks, ultrasounds check for chromosomal abnormalities, confirm your due date, and screen for multiple pregnancies. (Twins, anyone?) And yes, you can usually request pics to take home.

Second and third trimester scans

As much as you’ll want to ogle your miraculous baby on a screen every week, ultrasounds should only be reserved for medical reasons. You’ll probably have at least one in the second half of your pregnancy.

  • 20-week ultrasound – A scan at around 18–22 weeks is used to check on your baby’s development, the position of your placenta, and to screen for anatomic problems or genetic conditions. So… want to know if you’re having a baby boy or a baby girl? Ultrasound can typically pick up on the sex at this stage. (Eep!)

  • Checkups – Additional scans may be booked in for high-risk pregnancies or if your care team has any concerns.

How do you get an ultrasound?

All your pregnancy ultrasounds should be booked through your care provider. Your obstetrician can write you a referral and suggest a local hospital or clinic to perform the scan, or you can do a cheeky ‘ultrasound near me’ Google search and go to your clinic of choice.

Depending on where you go and whether you have health insurance or not, there may be some out of pocket costs for ultrasounds. Insurance might cover most (or all) routine ultrasound expenses, but it won’t cover elective scans. Without health insurance, you could be looking at anywhere between $100 and $1,000.

Having an ultrasound: What to expect

Heading to your first ultrasound? Exciting! Your health practitioner and sonographer should give you a rundown on what to expect and do. 

If it’s a transvaginal exam

  • You might be asked to undress from the waist down, or change into a hospital gown.

  • You’ll recline on a table and put your feet in stirrups.

  • Fancy ultrasound gel will be applied to the transducer wand, then the sonographer will gently insert it into the vagina.

  • There may be some poking around as they get all the data needed. It might be a little uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful.

If it’s a transabdominal exam

  • Loose-fitting clothing is the way to go. Do NOT wear a bodycon dress. It will be awkward AF trying to hike that thing over your pregnant belly.

  • You’ll recline on a table with your belly exposed, and you may need to unbutton your pants so your low abdominal area (right above the pubic bone) can be fully accessed.

  • Your doctor will squeeze some gel on your belly and slide the transducer around on your abdomen.

  • They may apply a bit of pressure to get accurate results, but again, it shouldn’t be painful.

You’re often able to see the screen during an ultrasound, so have those tissues on hand and be prepared to say hi to your baby.

Read next: When will I feel my baby kick?

Mayo Clinic, Fetal ultrasound

Raising Children Network, Tests in pregnancy

NPS MedicineWise, Ultrasound during pregnancy

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, FAQs – Ultrasound Exams

Stanford Health Care, Types of Ultrasound

High Risk Pregnancy Center, Best Fetal Ultrasounds for Pregnancies

VeryWell Family, How Soon Can an Ultrasound Show a Baby’s Heartbeat?

HowStuffWorks, How Ultrasound Works

House of Debt, How Much Does An Ultrasound Cost Without Insurance?

ValuePenguin, The Cost of an Ultrasound or Sonogram for Pregnancy

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