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Fetal Echocardiogram

Should your baby require a fetal echocardiogram, the maternal-fetal medicine staff are expert at providing the most up- to-date services available.

You’ve been looking forward to your routine prenatal ultrasound and the excitement of seeing your baby’s heartbeat. But what if that excitement turns to worry in the unlikely event that your doctor notices that something isn’t quite right?  Thankfully, advanced technology such as a fetal echocardiogram enables doctors to detect heart abnormalities before birth, allowing for faster medical or surgical intervention once the baby is born and improving the chances of survival after delivery for babies with severe heart defects.

What is Fetal Echocardiography (Echocardiogram)?

Fetal echocardiography is an ultrasound test performed during pregnancy to evaluate the heart of the unborn baby and assess the heart's structures and function. A small probe called a transducer (similar to a microphone) is placed on the mother's abdomen and sends out ultrasonic sound waves at a frequency too high to be heard. When the transducer is placed in certain locations and at certain angles, the ultrasonic sound waves move through the mother's and baby's skin and other body tissues to the baby's heart tissues, where the waves bounce (or "echo") off of the heart structures. The transducer picks up the reflected waves and sends them to a computer. The computer interprets the “echoes” into an image of the heart walls and valves.

Techniques sometimes used to obtain more detailed information about the fetal heart include:

  • 2-D (two-dimensional) echocardiography - used to "see" the actual structures and real-time motion of the heart for evaluation.
  • Doppler echocardiography – detects abnormal blood flow within the heart, which can indicate such problems as an opening between chambers of the heart, a problem with one or more of the heart's four valves, or with the heart's walls.
  • Color Doppler - different colors are used to designate the direction of blood flow, simplifying the interpretation of the Doppler images.

When is a Fetal Echocardiogram Necessary?

Most prenatal ultrasounds provide information about whether the fetal heart has developed with all four chambers and most unborn babies do not require any further testing. However, a fetal echocardiogram may be necessary if:
  • A sibling was born with a congenital (present at birth) heart defect
  • There’s a family history of congenital heart disease (such as parents, aunts or uncles, or grandparents)
  • A chromosomal or genetic abnormality is discovered in the fetus
  • The mother has taken certain medications that may cause congenital heart defects, such as anti-seizure medications or prescription acne medications
  • The mother has abused alcohol or drugs during pregnancy
  • The mother has diabetes, phenylketonuria, or a connective tissue disease such as lupus
  • The mother has had rubella during pregnancy
  • A routine prenatal ultrasound has discovered possible heart abnormalities
  • A routine prenatal ultrasound has identified other congenital (present at birth) anomalies such as kidney, brain or bone abnormalities. 
Fetal echocardiograms are usually performed in the second trimester of pregnancy (18 to 24 weeks). Additional ultrasounds or echocardiograms may be required, as well as amniocentesis or genetic counseling.

Learn more about the expert Maternal-Fetal medicine services at PinnacleHealth>>