New parents have a big choice to make when it comes to ultrasounds: should we get a 3D or 4D ultrasound?

Thanks to modern technology, parents have more options than ever before when it comes to seeing their future child. 4D ultrasounds are one such option. Unlike a 3D ultrasound, a 4D ultrasound shows a fourth dimension: time.

What does that mean? With a 3D ultrasound, you see a 3 dimensional image of your child in your womb. With a 4D ultrasound, you see those 3D images moving. It’s a live stream of the fetus.

Obviously, there are some big differences between 3D ultrasounds versus 4D ultrasounds in terms of cost, safety, and convenience. Today, we’re going to help you decide which ultrasound is right for your growing family.

2D, 3D, and 4D Ultrasounds

First, let’s do a basic overview of the differences between the three types of ultrasounds.

2D ultrasounds show a grey, blurry outline of your baby. With a traditional 2D ultrasound, the scan sees right through your body. That means a 2D ultrasound is essentially revealing your baby’s internal organs. Many parents are disappointed with 2D ultrasounds because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t look much like a baby.

With 3D and 4D ultrasounds, you see more than just your baby’s internal organs: you see his or her skin. You can see the shape of your baby’s mouth and nose. You can see if your baby is yawning, sucking her thumb, or sticking her tongue out. You get a more realistic look at your future child.

The main advantage of a 4D ultrasound is that you can see a moving image of your child. Again, time is the fourth dimension here.

3D Ultrasounds Versus 4D Ultrasounds: Which One is Safer?

3D and 4D scans are generally considered to be as safe as 2D scans. The reason is simple: 3D ultrasounds don’t require some specialized equipment. 3D ultrasounds are just a collection of two-dimensional images converted into a picture by computer software.

However, there is a caveat here: doctors don’t typically recommend doing a 3D or 4D ultrasound for souvenir reasons. If you’re just doing the ultrasound to get a closer look at your baby, then you’re exposing your baby to more ultrasound than is medically necessary.

There’s an additional problem: some private ultrasound screenings can last as long as 45 minutes to an hour. That could be longer than recommended safety limits. That means your baby is exposed to more ultrasound, which could increase the risk of side effects.

If you want to check your baby for an abnormality or health problem, then a 3D or 4D ultrasound can be very valuable. If you just want a cute photo or recording, then many doctors will advise against a 3D or 4D ultrasound.

What’s the Difference Between a 3D and 4D Ultrasound?

Now that you know about the health risks of a 3D and 4D ultrasound, let’s take a look at the specific differences between the two techniques.

3D Ultrasound Advantages

3D ultrasounds are made by taking multiple 2D images of your future baby. These 2D images are slightly different because they’re created by waves which are at slightly different angles. These images are processed by powerful computers, which give you the 3D scan of your baby.

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Here are some of the advantages of a 3D ultrasound over a 2D ultrasound:

  • Using virtual planes in scanning helps to better visualize fetal heart structures by allowing views not attainable by 2D imaging; most research shows this can increase the chance of detecting defects by 6%
  • Better diagnosis of fetal face defects like cleft lip
  • Better diagnosis of fetal skeletal or neural tube defects
  • More imaging data for a remote expert to review after your scan
  • Easier diagnosis of various conditions, particularly by operators who have less skill and experience

4D Ultrasound Advantages

4D ultrasounds are essentially a live streaming video of the images created by a 3D ultrasound. All of the advantages of a 3D ultrasound exist for a 4D ultrasound. However, there are some additional advantages unique to 4D ultrasounds:

  • You can see the motion of the fetal heart wall and valves, including blood flow in various vessels, which can make it easier to diagnose certain conditions
  • Specialists can observe the motions of various moving organs in the body
  • You get a video of your future child instead of a photograph

Should You Get a 3D or 4D Ultrasound?

Ultimately, most medical professionals recommend against getting 3D or 4D ultrasounds unless a medical condition is suspected. With both 3D and 4D ultrasounds, you’re exposing your future child to more ultrasound than necessary.

As many medical blogs online will tell you, this violates the “ALARA” principle, or “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” principle, which states that you shouldn’t expose babies to diagnostic imaging unless absolutely necessary. 3D and 4D ultrasounds both use higher-than-usual levels of ultrasound energy, which could have potential side-effects on the fetus. The sessions are also longer, which enhances the risk even further.

Nevertheless, in the real world, the vast majority of 3D and 4D ultrasounds are for mementos and keepsakes.

A 4D ultrasound provides the best-quality visual of your baby. This can make it easier to spot physical problems, and it can also make for a better memento. Many parents prefer a video of the fetus over a photograph.

Talk to your doctor to determine if a 3D or 4D ultrasound is the right choice for your fetus.

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