If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve probably seen at least a couple of ultrasound pictures. No, not the traditional profile from a regular ultrasound—we’re talking about the incredibly detailed (almost freaky!) 3D pictures and even the 4D movie-like images of baby in utero. Where do you get these? And are they safe?

In this article, we’ll answer all of your questions about the different types of ultrasounds available—2D, 3D, and 4D—plus explain why you may want to pass on the latter two.

First Thing’s First: What’s a 2D Ultrasound?

Once upon a time, we didn’t talk about different dimensions of ultrasounds, because—well—they didn’t exist. If you got an ultrasound, you were getting one thing: a 2D ultrasound, which is a scan that produces a flat, two-dimensional image (think: a side profile), thanks to the way high-frequency sound waves bounce off of anatomical structures.

These types of ultrasounds are used to:

  • Confirm due date
  • Check amniotic fluid levels
  • Assess development and growth
  • Confirm the location of the placenta
  • Check for markers for conditions, defects, or other issues like spina bifida
  • Detect nuchal cord or other problems with the umbilical cord
  • Confirm baby’s position

But as technology continues to advance, your OB or midwife may start to refer to ultrasounds as either 2D, 3D, or 4D.

This is an example of a 2D ultrasound:

3D and 4D Ultrasounds Are They Worth the Risk pregnancy post by Mama Natural 2D_ultrasound

(Image Source)

What’s a 3D Ultrasound?

Although 2D and 3D ultrasounds are conducted the same way (i.e. an application of gel followed by the maneuvering of the wand on the belly), the 3D ultrasound uses high-frequency ultrasound and state-of-the-art equipment that transforms the sound waves into three-dimensional images.

As you can see in the picture below, 2D and 3D ultrasounds produce dramatically different images. The 3D image creates a scan that is almost photographic. Because of this, 3D ultrasounds are capable of diagnosing conditions—like cleft palate—much easier than a 2D ultrasound.

Are 3D ultrasounds standard practice?

Today, many OBGYN offices do have 3D ultrasounds available, but they still haven’t become the standard. In most cases, 3D ultrasounds are elective. Your provider may recommend a 3D ultrasound if you are high-risk for certain conditions (like placenta accreta) or if your doctor needs a closer look at your baby’s anatomy to rule out or confirm conditions like cleft palates.

Here is what a 3D ultrasound looks like:

3D and 4D Ultrasounds Are They Worth the Risk pregnancy post by Mama Natural 3D_ultrasound

(Image Source)

What is a 4D Ultrasound?

The 4D process is a lot like getting any other ultrasound—mama lays down on a table, warm gel is applied, and the provider moves a transducer, or wand, over the belly. The big difference is what happens on the screen: during a 4D ultrasound, the images are continually updated on the screen, resulting in a movie-like image. Essentially, the machine takes several 3D images in short bursts, much like a claymation movie. (source)

Are 4D ultrasounds standard practice?

Like 3D ultrasounds, 4D ultrasounds are usually elective. In rare cases, your provider may suggest a 4D ultrasound  when a standard ultrasounds picks up markers for conditions, like enlarged ventricles in the baby’s brain. The movie-like view allows the doctor to more closely examine a specific area of your baby’s anatomy without interruption. Additionally, there’s no need to compare multiple scans.

Here’s what a 4D ultrasound looks like:


So… Are 3D and 4D Ultrasounds Safe?

Like any ultrasound, there is a lot of controversy. There is no doubt that ultrasounds can help diagnose some pretty serious conditions that may even result in babies getting treatment while still in the womb. However, for a low-risk pregnancy, the risks of a 3D or 4D ultrasound likely outweigh the benefits. Here’s what you need to know:

3D and 4D ultrasounds are not part of routine exams.

As mentioned above, routine prenatal care includes only 2D ultrasounds. These scans usually provide all of the necessary information, including amniotic fluid levels, the location of the placenta, and baby’s position. Your provider may suggest a 3D or 4D ultrasound only after close examination reveals suspected genetic issues. It these cases, the benefits may outweigh the risks—that’s something you’ll have to discuss with your healthcare provider.

Keepsake ultrasounds are not recommended by any medical professionals.

More ultrasound “boutiques” are popping up to let expectant mamas get a “better look” at baby. Some parents use these boutique ultrasounds for early gender determination, but these boutique scans are non-medical and not recommended. ACOG, the FDA, and even the American Institute of Ultrasound Medicine all recommend avoiding these “keepsake ultrasounds”—especially because independent ultrasound locations usually perform unnecessarily long exams, perhaps exposing baby to greater harm than a quick ultrasound at your healthcare provider’s office.

There are some risks involved.

There’s no denying that ultrasounds can help spot issues and potentially save lives. It is important, however, to note that there are some risks in involved in any ultrasound and official statements on ultrasounds all agree that a hands-off approach is best, because of:

  • Heat generated from the ultrasound: According to the FDA, ultrasounds can “heat tissues slightly […].” And when ultrasounds are performed for any lengthy duration, these risks increase. (source)
  • Lack of studies on pregnant mothers: It should be noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists regard ultrasounds as generally safe—only because studies are not performed directly on pregnant mothers. In their FAQ section, the ACOG advises against any unnecessary scans, as “effects could be identified in the future.” (source)
  • Extra worry: This may surprise you, but ultrasounds can create unnecessary worry. If non-medical professionals (like those at boutique locations) spot something that looks out of the ordinary, this could cause undue stress until you’re able to see a medical professional.

Though traditional ultrasounds—like the 20 week ultrasound—can be a great tool, medical communities from around the globe, including Australia and Canada, have expressed concern over the safety of 3D and 4D ultrasounds, in particular.


There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of meeting a new baby, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get a sneak peek at their cute little face. But the reality is 3D and 4D ultrasounds at boutique offices simply might not be worth the risk.