When you’re pregnant, you’ll likely find yourself counting down to the anatomy scan, the ultrasound that takes place just about half way through your pregnancy. If you didn’t find out through early genetic screening, the anatomy scan is a chance to answer a big question: boy or girl? Maybe you’re even waiting till after this scan to make your baby announcement.
However, the anatomy scan about so much more than finding out your little one’s sex. Although this ultrasound is an exciting moment when you can “see” your baby for the first time, it’s also an important medical procedure to check up on your baby and make sure all his or her organs are developing appropriately.
In this article:
The Anatomy Scan Ultrasound, Analyzed
The anatomy scan is a moment that many moms look forward to. But it can also be nerve-wracking. By the time this scan happens, between 18 and 22 weeks gestation, you’re well into your second trimester. By this point, your baby’s major organs are formed and large enough to be measured by an ultrasound technician, also known as a sonographer.
This means that a technician can perform what’s known as a level 2 ultrasound — one with detailed imaging that can diagnose many pregnancy complications or birth defects. Usually techs use 2D (traditional) ultrasound for the anatomy scan, although yours may incorporate 3D images as well.
During an anatomy scan, a sonographer will:
- Measure your baby from head to bum, around their belly and around their head
- Examine and take measurements of the organs including the kidneys, bladder, stomach, and brain
- Take detailed pictures of the four chambers of the heart
- Look at the genitals and tell you the baby’s sex, if you want to know
- Measure the baby’s heart rate
- Measure the amniotic fluid
- Examine the pregnancy structures including the umbilical cord, cervix and placenta to make sure they’re functioning well.
It’s important that the ultrasound tech get good pictures, and not just so you have something to show the grandparents. After the ultrasound, the measurements and pictures are analyzed by your doctor to make sure that everything is healthy. If the technician is having trouble getting pictures or measurements, you might be asked to switch positions, have a snack to get baby moving or even return on another day. Don’t worry if that happens — it just means your baby may be in a position that’s tough to see and it’s not a sign for concern.
In most cases, the sonographer who is performing the ultrasound isn’t allowed to give you any information about complications that they see, since they are not qualified to make a diagnosis. However, they should be able to tell you the sex of your baby, if you want to know. They’ll also send you home with some adorable pictures (and sometimes a video!) of your little one in utero.
“The ultrasound tech can't tell you any medical information about your baby. But they should be able to tell you the sex, if you choose to find out!"
What to Know Before Your Ultrasound
Getting all the appropriate measurements and pictures can take a long time. Most anatomy scans last for 30-60 minutes, but if you have any pregnancy complications or are carrying multiples it will take longer.
Here’s what you should know about how to prepare for your anatomy scan.
Using the bathroom
By 20 weeks, the idea of holding your bladder for 45 minutes while someone pokes your belly might sound risky. Still, you’ll want to resist the urge to use the bathroom before your anatomy scan.
Having a full bladder can actually help the tech see your anatomy better, making the scan go more quickly. Talk with your doctor or nurse about whether you should arrive with a full bladder for your anatomy scan. Sometimes, they’ll even ask you to drink lots of water before you arrive. But don’t make yourself miserable—if you have to use the restroom, just ask!
Who can be in the room with you
It’s understandable to want to bring all your close loved ones to an anatomy scan so they can get a sneak peak at your baby. But remember—this is an important medical procedure. It’s best to pick one trusted loved one to have there for support.
During COVID, there may be additional restrictions about who can be in the room with you during your anatomy scan. Speak with the facility where you’re having your procedure to learn about their specific policies.
What the tech can tell you
Sonographers are medical professionals who are trained to take measurements and pictures, but they are not trained to interpret the results (that role is reserved for radiologists). Because of that, technicians are not supposed to tell you anything about the health of your fetus or pregnancy.
Your technician will likely tell you what they’re doing, and what you’re seeing on the screen. They’ll point out specific anatomical features, like baby’s heart, but they won’t be able to tell you whether the heart is healthy. Your doctor will follow up with you after the scan to give you the all-clear or let you know of any complications.
In most cases, the tech will be able to tell you the sex of your baby.
What Happens After Your Anatomy Scan
Once you’ve left the room, the real work of an anatomy scan begins. The images and measurements that the technician took are sent to a radiologist and your OB/GYN for analysis. In general, no news is good news and you’ll learn about the results at your next prenatal appointment.
However, occasionally the anatomy scan will detect a problem. This might be an abnormality in the way one of the baby’s organs has developed; trouble with your anatomy like the cervix or placenta; or so-called “soft markers” like additional skin folds that can indicate a condition like Down Syndrome.
Since ultrasound is not definitive, your doctor will likely recommend further testing, including a specialty ultrasound, genetic screening, or possibly amniocentesis to get a more accurate diagnosis. Once you have more information, you and your doctor can work together on a plan of care.
In most cases, the anatomy plan will just be a pleasant memory as you get even closer to meeting your baby. Be sure to ask your tech for a picture, either printed out or digitally. In some cases, you can also get a recording of the anatomy scan, or ask to record it yourself.
Although they won’t compare to the pictures you’ll get roughly 20 weeks from now, those black-and-white ultrasound picture hold a special place for many moms as the first time they saw their baby’s sweet profile.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does the anatomy scan detect?
The anatomy scan is designed to detect any abnormalities in fetal development. This might include organs that aren’t developing properly. The scan also identifies “soft markers” like additional skin folds that might indicate that your baby has a genetic condition like Down Syndrome. Finally, the scan aims to spot any problems with the mother’s anatomy — including her placenta and cervix — that might affect the pregnancy.
What week can you get an anatomy scan?
The anatomy scan is performed between 18 and 22 weeks of gestation. Usually, it’s scheduled as close to 20 weeks as possible. By this point in the second trimester, the fetus is developed enough and large enough that the technicians can properly measure organs and identify any potential developmental problems.
What is the purpose of the anatomy scan?
The anatomy scan is a level 2 ultrasound designed to make sure that a fetus is developing normally, and everything is proceeding correctly within the uterus as well. During the scan, a technician will take careful measurements of all baby’s organs (like the heart, brain and lungs) and bodily structures (like the face and limbs). The tech will also examine the placenta, umbilical cord, cervix, and amniotic fluid.
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