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4D Ultrasound Scan: What Is It? (Based on Latest Medical Research)

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4D Ultrasound Scan: What Is It?

4D ultrasound scans allow parents to see real-time images of their baby moving around inside the womb. 4D ultrasound tests also give doctors new opportunities to diagnose health issues with the growing baby that were never possible before. 4D scans let parents and doctors see real-life video images of your unborn baby’s mouth, nose, hands, and other features. You might even see your baby yawning, gripping with hands, or even smiling!

4D ultrasound scans are not yet standard practice in all hospitals or pre-natal clinics. Depending on where you live, you may have to pay extra for a 4D scan, or it could even be covered by your medical insurance. However, for many mothers and fathers, seeing their baby move around in the womb on a 4D scan video is much better than a black and white, grainy 2D ultrasound scan.

What are the benefits of a 4D ultrasound scan during pregnancy? Is a 4D ultrasound safe during pregnancy? Are there any risks associated with 4D scans?


In this article, I will look at the latest medical research on the benefits of 4D scans. I will also look at some of the health issues that doctors can detect in unborn babies with a 4D ultrasound scan.

What is 4D Ultrasound Scan During Pregnancy?

An ultrasound scan or sonogram using 4D technology is a way to capture live video of an unborn baby. The journal Critical Reviews in Biomedical Engineering explains that 4D ultrasound imaging provides doctors with rich visual information. This information can be assessed and used to make sure that the baby is developing properly.1

The 4D ultrasound scan also allows parents to keep a fetal keepsake video of their baby.

According to the journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 3D or 4D ultrasonography lets clinicians obtain 3-dimensional images that were never available with traditional 2D scans. These pictures or videos can give the parents a demonstration of how the baby is growing. The 4D ultrasound scan also allows doctors to diagnose any defects in the baby’s growth.2

In other words, whereas 2D ultrasound produces two-dimensional images of the baby, 3D and 4D ultrasound produce both a three dimensional picture, but the 4D ultrasound adds another dimension – movement, so it is like watching a live video.

How is the 4D Ultrasound Scan Done?

A 4D scan using ultrasound wave is carried out in the same way as any other ultrasound scan.

Director of perinatal services at the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, Dr. Kecia Gaither says that you will lie on your back. A trained technician will then put gel on your belly and move the probe over your abdomen to get the 3D or 4D image.3

4D sonogram images are obtained from the sound waves created by the ultrasound machine. The ultrasound probe creates pictures from the echoes as the sound waves bounce off your baby. These provide 3D videos where you can see your baby moving around the uterus. Doctors will also examine the results and let you know if everything is okay with your baby’s health.

Who Performs the 4D Ultrasound Scan?

In medical facilities, 4D ultrasound scans should be performed by qualified medical personnel. The journal Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology says that medical technicians can learn 3D/4D ultrasound imaging in a short space of time.4

However, doctors have expressed concern about the popularity of 4D ultrasound imaging in a non-medical setting. For example, Dr. Kecia Gaither says that some companies are setting up spaces in local malls or office buildings offering pregnant mothers 4D scanning. These are purely to get a 3D image or short streaming video of the baby without any medical advice. Dr. Gaither also warns that many of these companies don’t employ highly skilled technicians to perform the scans.3

Although ultrasound scans are generally safe, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine warns that too much ultrasound exposure may not be good for babies.3


When Can a 4D Ultrasound Test Be Done?

The Australasian Journal of Ultrasound Medicine says that a 3D or 4D ultrasound tests can be done as early as the second trimester to capture your baby’s movements and shape. In the 18th to 22nd weeks of pregnancy, it’s possible to see how the head, brain, face, and spine are developing.4

However, the British Journal of Radiology reports that as early as the first trimester, 3D ultrasound imaging can be used to determine the baby’s gender.5

What Can the 4D Ultrasound Test Results Tell?

A 4D ultrasound test can tell doctors a lot about how the baby is growing in the womb. This can help to identify any deformities or health issues early and provide or recommend the best treatment.

The Journal of Perinatal Medicine reports that 4D ultrasound procedures can help to identify many issues with the baby’s development. For example, 4D imaging makes it possible to see facial deformities like a cleft lip, check for skeletal defects, and diagnose signs of neurodevelopment problems.6

Many doctors use 4D sonogram test results to also check for heart disease. The journal Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology reported that 4D scans are important to check for problems with the baby’s cardiovascular system. If any problems or abnormalities are detected, this gives doctors time to recommend the best course of treatment for a successful delivery.7

Doctors can also use 4D ultrasound test results to examine the effect of smoking on unborn babies. According to the journal Acta Paediatrica, 4D scan imaging was able to detect that babies whose mothers smoke move their mouth more than babies of non-smoking mothers. This can help doctors study the effects of stress and smoking on babies growing in the uterus.8

Overall, the advantage of 4D ultrasound is the ability to detect motion of various moving organs of the body, which in turn can help to diagnose more health issues that involve motion, such as heart movement to detect heart problems or fetal behavior that can indicate problem with brain development and central nervous system.

4D ultrasound scan showing your baby’s movements in the womb

One of the most thrilling moments that parents enjoy is to see their unborn baby moving in the uterus.

The medical journal Maedica reported on some of the fascinating movements of the baby that can be recorded with 4D ultrasound. Some of these were sticking their tongue out, yawning, smiling, frowning, sucking, and hand to head movements.9


Doctors can use these movements to check the health of the baby. For example, if the movements are complex and include various limbs, then it is a good indication that the baby is growing well. However, if the movements detected by the 4D ultrasound are repetitive with lack of complexity, then it could be a sign that further tests are needed.

Are 4D Scans Dangerous for The Baby?

Ultrasound scans using 4D or 3D technology are just as safe as traditional 2D black and white scans.

Dr. Kecia Gaither, who was quoted earlier, says that most studies suggest that 4D ultrasound scans are safe for both baby and mother.3

However, doctors from the Radiological Society of North America are concerned about safety issues with some firms offering services more for entertainment purposes. Dr. Deborah Levine who is a radiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says that professional radiologists perform a complete diagnostic before providing 4D videos of unborn babies.10

Also, Dr. Wesley Lee from the Children’s Fetal Center in Houston warns that a person not properly trained could put the baby at risk by incorrectly using the transducer. It is also a bad medical practice to offer pictures of a fetus without medical assessment.10

4D Ultrasound Scans – Advantages for the Baby

As mentioned previously, one of the biggest advantages of 4D ultrasound scans over 3D or 2D ultrasonography is the ability to detect motion. The baby’s movement can help doctors diagnose more health issues with the unborn baby than ever before.

To emphasize the benefits of 4D ultrasound, the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine reported that observing the baby’s facial expressions can help evaluate brain development. This is important for evaluating if the fetus is progressing in normal healthy way.11


Another advantage that 4D ultrasound scanning has over 3D or 2D scans is that it is far more accurate. A report from 2008 on the benefits of 4D scanning says that it provides faster results and is less dependent on the expertise of the medical personnel. Therefore, there is less room for errors of judgments when using 4D ultrasound scanning technology.1

Disadvantages of 4D Ultrasound Tests

For some parents, the biggest disadvantage of arranging a 4D ultrasound test is the cost involved. Generally, medical insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the 4D test because it is not yet in mainstream medical practice and is an elective procedure.

Depending on the services offered, the 4D can cost between $70 and $180 for an examination. Some clinics may provide a 3D photo free of charge at the same time when you go for your regular 2D ultrasound.

Precautions with 4D Ultrasound Scans

4D ultrasound scans are generally as safe for the baby as are 2D and 3D sonograms. However, it’s important to ensure that only qualified medical personnel carry ultrasound scans.

According to the FDA, some of the risks from sonograms come from overexposure to the sound-waves. It is reported that ultrasound waves can slightly warm up developing tissue. Too much exposure to ultrasound waves can also cause small pockets of gas to form in fluids or tissue.12

Therefore, the FDA recommends that “keepsake” 4D ultrasound videos and pictures are only obtained during a routine medical exam. The FDA also strongly warns about letting untrained users operate any kind of ultrasound device on expectant mothers.12

The Journal of Prenatal Medicine recommends that ultrasound exposure is always limited to less than 30 minutes.13

Future Developments with 4D Ultrasound Scans

Because of the definite benefits of using 4D sonogram devices over 2D, many researchers predict that 4D tests will become standard procedure. Presently the high cost of the sonogram machines restricts many hospitals and clinics from purchasing the equipment and offering 3D and 4D ultrasound scans.

However, a report published in 2017 in the journal Current Cardiovascular Imaging Reports says that 3D and 4D technologies are ever advancing. In time, 4D imaging using ultrasound will become the first choice for many doctors.14

Also, the journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology recommended that 3D and 4D ultrasound scans become routine. The authors of the report said that the benefits of 4D imaging to diagnose facial clefts, spinal defects, brain abnormalities, and cardiovascular problems in unborn babies are powerful arguments to scan using 3D and 4D ultrasound machines.15

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Medical References

  1. Crit Rev Biomed Eng.2008;36(4):257-304.
  2. Clin Obstet Gynecol.2012 Mar;55(1):336-51.
  3. WebMD. 3D and 4D ultrasounds.
  4. Australas J Ultrasound Med. 2013 Aug; 16(3): 98–113.
  5. Br J Radiol.2003 Jul;76(907):448-51.
  6. J Perinat Med.2007;35(1):10-27.
  7. Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol.2007 Jan;29(1):81-95.
  8. Acta paed. 2015 Apr 22;104(6): 596-603.
  9. Maedica (Buchar). 2011 Apr; 6(2): 120–127.
  10. RSNA. 3D and 4D ultrasound advances.
  11. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med.2017 May 29:1-9.
  12. FDA. Ultrasound imaging.
  13. J Perinat Med.2016 Mar;44(2):125-9.
  14. Curr Cardiovasc Imaging Rep.2017;10(12):43.
  15. Clin Obstet Gynecol.2012 Mar;55(1):336-51.
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