Ultrasound 101: What The Heck Are You Looking For?

How an ultrasound works, detecting gender and finding out if something’s wrong


If you’re newly pregnant and going for your first ultrasound, it’s pretty exciting. You’ll get to see your baby, hear its heartbeat and it’s baby’s first photo op. But, it’s also uncomfortable—you’ll probably have to pee the whole time while they’re pushing on your bladder. And you might get a little worried. The ultrasound technician isn’t allowed to answer major questions. So how are you supposed to know what you’re looking for or if something is wrong? Here are some tips on how to understand an ultrasound for yourself.

How the heck does it work?

You’ll go for your first ultrasound at 10-13 weeks, 8 weeks at the earliest, where they’ll measure your baby to date the pregnancy and predict a due date. Ultrasounds record high-frequency sound waves and translate them into photo and video images. They’re used to check the amniotic sac, placenta and ovaries, and to make sure the baby is growing properly. Newer ultrasounds can be three-dimensional, used to see every side of the fetus and detect birth defects more accurately, whereas a 4D ultrasound is a moving picture. Although ultrasounds can be uncomfortable they’re definitely safe. They’ve been in use since the 1950s and have no known side effects.

Where the heck is my baby?

At 8 weeks your baby should be the size of a kidney bean, or 1.6 cm long. That’s pretty small. If you go for an earlier ultrasound between 4–7 weeks don’t be alarmed if the technician can’t find your baby. What you want to look for is the baby’s spine, usually an arched shape inside of the amniotic sac, a circular space in the uterus. From there you can determine where the head, face and body of your baby is.

Who the heck is my baby?

Ultrasound technicians are not allowed to provide a diagnosis (ie. they are not qualified to tell you the gender of your baby). Even though some technicians will tell you the gender of your baby, it technically doesn't count as a diagnosis. Hospitals across Canada have been cracking down on this issue from Ontario to Nova Scotia and P.E.I. In British Columbia mothers have to pay an extra $50 to find out their child’s gender! If they won’t divulge, there are signs you can look for to determine gender. Just be careful, even trained professionals have been known to make mistakes.

Gender can be determined after 18 weeks of pregnancy. With a girl you want to look for the Hamburger Sign—the clitoris between the labial lips forms three oblong shapes pushed together like a hamburger. To confirm a boy, you should look for the Turtle Sign—the tip of the penis peeks out behind the testicles showing as a small circle attached to a larger circle. It will look like the overhead view of a turtle.

Why the heck isn’t my baby moving?

It’s hard to determine the gender of your baby if they’re in an awkward position. It’s good to get your baby moving before the ultrasound in order to have prime camera-coverage of the right body parts. But if your baby wiggles too much, you won’t get a clear picture. Try one or two of these tips to get your baby moving just enough:

  • Go for a walk before your appointment. Walking is mostly known for putting babies to sleep, but it can also wake them up.
  • Drink juice half an hour before your appointment. Your baby in will absorb the sugar in uterine, causing movement.
  • Try coughing, laughing and talking during the appointment. These soft noises could wake the baby. Just make sure not to distract the technician.  
  • Gently poke and jiggle into a better position. If the tech still can’t get a good picture, they might ask you to move the baby yourself.

What the heck is wrong?

An ultrasound can detect if something is wrong with your pregnancy, so your doctor will be aware of the condition and give you the special care your baby deserves. Here are some irregularities an ultrasound can detect:

  • A chromosome defect like Down syndrome. A doctor will look for a strawberry shaped head, overlapping fingers, misshapen feet and fluid on the brain, spine, or kidneys.
  • Spina bifida. Your doctor will be able to tell when the spinal cord hasn’t fused properly.
  • Umbilical cord complications. If only one umbilical artery is found, it could signify defects like a cleft lip, heart condition or a chromosome defect. And if the umbilical cord is wrapped around a baby’s neck the doctor should be made aware so they can prevent complications during birth.
  • Heart problems. An ultrasound can see the anatomy of the heart and detect if there are any congenital heart conditions.
  • Ectopic pregnancy. If the doctor cannot find the fetus it could be an ectopic pregnancy. This is where the zygote implants itself outside the uterus, usually in the Fallopian tube.

It’s extremely scary when you’re told there’s something wrong with your baby, but usually there’s a lot you can do. The first step is having the tests done; so when you go for your first ultrasound, don’t look for the worst. Stay smart, educated and look for the signs. And don’t forget to hang baby’s first photo on the fridge!  

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