Not-So-Ultrasound

Since writing Isobel’s birth story, I’ve been asked numerous times why we opted out of having any ultrasound scans during the pregnancy. It’s been met with whispers of surprise, of wide-eyed horror, of confusion, and the words “wow, you’re brave” uttered in equally admiring tones. “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, seems to be the overwhelming consensus from people who’ve brought it up. So I figured it was time I did a blog to clear up some of our reasoning, and perhaps put forward some food for thought for others embarking on their own pregnancy journeys.

We had a number of reasons for refusing any ultrasound (that includes scans as well as listening with a doppler to the heartbeat – also a form of ultrasound).

  1. It carries serious risks and has never been properly studied.

    This in itself should give pause. Ultrasound technology came into use in the 1960s, and has taken off enormously, to the point where many women are now offered dozens of scans throughout their pregnancies to monitor ‘abnormalities’ (we’ll come back to that one, later). Despite this, very little has been done in the way of research into its safety, besides retrospective studies, i.e. ones where we are the guinea pigs.

    Those that have been done, paint a less than ideal picture.

    Ultrasound has, in turn, been linked to…

    * Early miscarriage
    * Development of autism
    * Aberrations in the migration of glial cells in the brain
    * Thermal effects and cavitation with unknown consequences
    * Left-handedness (in itself no big deal, but evidence of it doing *something* nevertheless)
    * Less-than-ideal birth outcomes due to cascading interventions based on ‘findings’ that may or may not even be correct, or even meaningful
    * Numerous other health concerns, as evidenced by Chinese research (see link below)

    And, the esteemed Cochrane Collaboration – the gold-standard of research – have found no evidence that finding ‘problems’ prenatally has any real effect on outcomes for baby, except you might get them in to the operating theatre if needed a few hours earlier. The real-world, practical outcomes are more or less the same as if you found out about something at birth – parents may have a little more time to prepare, but beyond that, there’s no real benefit.

    Whatever the case, whatever the risks, it is clear that ultrasound does have physical, biological effects on the developing baby, the outcomes of which are not fully known. And that is something worth considering very carefully before subjecting your baby and your belly to that ultrasound.

    I won’t go into the science of the points I’ve touched on in too much depth, as I would be going on forever, however I can very highly recommend a read of these pieces for further information on the risks of ultrasound:

    – Dr Sarah Buckley: ‘Ultrasound scans – cause for concern’ (this is a great read)
    – Dr Kelly Brogan: ‘The Perils of Peeking into the Womb’
    – Dr Manual Casanova: ‘Ultrasound and Autism’
    Cochrane and more Cochrane
    The Healthy Home Economist has done an excellent review of the Chinese research on ultrasound dangers, based on 50 in utero studies

  2. Avoidance of the cascade of intervention

    We found this one out with our son’s birth, in a way. He had a two-vessel umbilical cord which was detected at the only scan we had planned for him, at 20 weeks. Panic stations! (No, not really – for us anyway). This threw into question whether or not we’d be ‘allowed to have a home birth’, our midwife was worried about his growth (clearly it was fine, I was the size of a small whale), we were pushed towards – and declined – repeat growth scans, etc etc. And in the end? He was a perfect size, very healthy, it was clear the single artery had done the job of the usual two, no issues whatsoever came from it. But the stress we could have done without.

    Which this time around made me realise just how vital that aspect can be: we know how seriously damaging stress can be for a developing baby, epigenetically speaking, so why not do what you can to avoid it?

    The biggest question I think expectant parents need to ask in this regard is:
    What would I do with the information if they did ‘find something wrong’ with my baby on an ultrasound?

    What are the likely outcomes of that – would I terminate if it appeared something was bad enough? Would I wait it out to see how things go, regardless of findings? What if those findings are wrong? Am I prepared to jump on the treadmill of frequent growth scans and so on with all the risks they carry? How much faith do I have in these scans, in my body, in God or ‘the universe’ or whatever it is you personally believe in? Would I decline further tests and face all the pressure that comes with going against ‘medical advice’? Would I run with the recommendations and watch things change significantly, spinning out of control and out of my hands? What are the potential implications of that possible cascade of intervention? How would I deal with things if something was wrong and we didn’t find out – and would I be ok with taking that chance? Would I just do nothing and let things be, come what may, no matter what they find?

    Some heavy questions but all very valid and worth careful consideration, to figure out exactly where you stand and what you are and aren’t prepared to do.

  3. It just felt wrong!!

    All that aside, for me, it feels wrong to be peeking into the womb – we don’t have windows there, and it’s our baby’s safe, private space to grow and change. Seeing my baby girl for the first time at her moment of birth was incredibly precious… we had no idea what she looked like, not even a profile to guess from, and that was so amazing. Picking her up and gazing at her dainty little features, her crop of dark hair, her tiny fingers and button nose… amazing.

  4. Putting it all to the test

    Another factor for me also is that ultrasound makes me incredibly anxious. The ‘what ifs’ are a whole lot more real when you’re in a clinic putting that wand on your belly, and feeling so vulnerable. Knowing that the research says there’s no real difference in outcomes when things are detected pre- vs postnatally, and that we’d continue the pregnancy anyway more or less as we would be doing regardless, I decided it just wasn’t worth the anxiety, for me or for baby.

    We also had the interesting experience of putting all this to the test around 13 weeks when I had a major bleed, and things weren’t looking good (to others anyway – I knew things were ok). Needless to say it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life as a parent – a major test of faith to say the least. But even then, despite having previously said I’d have a scan if ‘medically indicated’, we declined (and so still to this day have no idea what caused it).

    The rationale? Besides trusting that things would be fine and this baby was meant to be here, meant to be born alive and healthy and well, and that my body would do its job just fine, the way it was made to… there’s nothing we could have done regardless at that gestation in terms of what the medical profession could offer, even if they could see the cause on a scan, and in such a precarious situation already for my baby I wasn’t about to subject her to further physical stress by way of intense ultrasound or doppler waves and put that pregnancy in further jeopardy.

So there we have it. A few factors that came into play with us, and for others to consider before popping on down for that routine ultrasound and the famed ‘nub shot’!! Obviously if finding out the sex of the baby is vitally important to you, there’s no real way around things (other than perhaps asking for a shorter than usual scan), and for many people the ‘need to know’ far outweighs the ‘don’t need to know’. But for us, it was the right decision and one I’m so glad to have made. In a way it made the pregnancy so much more special for me – bonding not through a ghostly TV image in a white clinical room but through the kicks, the wriggles, getting to know my girl and her routines and idiosyncrasies and the way loud noises made her jump and she liked to stretch her long legs just so and the way her hands have to be up around her face at all times and the way she loves hearing her brother’s voice and would wake up when her Dad got home and all those other things you just quietly learn in that incredibly private, special way over your nine months of bonding before you finally set eyes on one another…

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