New research has suggested that the harmful effects of smoking during pregnancy may be reflected in the facial movements of mothers’ unborn babies.
For many years, we’ve been familiar with the grainy images of the traditional, two-dimensional (2D) ultrasound scan: the first black and white picture that you receive of your unborn baby. Lovely as it always is to have, the 2D scan tells you very little about how your baby looks and, let’s face it, how many parents to be can really distinguish anything clearly from their 2D scan other than a peanut-shaped form?
Nevertheless, the 2D scan has provided millions with a chunk of photographic happiness over the years but, as with most things, technology has moved on at a great pace, allowing you to now see your baby smile, suck its thumb and move around in your tummy thanks to the increased use of 3D and 4D ultrasound scans.
How do they work?
Well, antenatal scans basically work by sending out high frequency ultrasound waves, which are then converted by a computer into the images, which you see on a computer screen. While the 2D scans are unmoving, static and feature very little close detail, however, the 3D scans provide pictures of your baby in three dimensions – albeit that they’re unmoving – while 4D scans show moving 3D images (time is the fourth dimension).
What can you actually see?
Well, put simply, with 3D and 4D scans, you’ll see your baby’s skin and features as opposed to just their ‘insides’ which you can see in the 2D version. You may also be able to see them sticking out their tongue or yawning.
Sometimes, depending on how your baby is lying, you won’t be able to see their face. If she’s lying facing outwards, with a good amount of amniotic fluid around her features, then her face should be clearly visible. If she’s facing your back though, or if your scan is after 30 weeks and her head is deep down in your pelvis, then you probably won’t be able to see her face.
This type of scanning can sometimes be useful to look at the internal organs and to gain more information about a known abnormality. Also, since the scans can show detail from different angles, they can help in the diagnosis of a cleft lip and consequently allow doctors to plan any repairs post birth.
Best time for a scan?
Good pictures of your baby can be obtained at any stage of your pregnancy. However, although you’ll be able to see your baby moving its arms and legs in the early weeks, their facial characteristics will be indistinct. The best time is really between 18 and 34 weeks when there is still plenty of fluid available to get a clear scan. By that time your baby will also have started to ‘fatten up’, making their facial features more as they will appear at birth.
(From around 18 to 20 weeks onwards you’ll also be able to, if you wish, find out whether your baby is a boy or a girl. This depends, however, on how cooperative your baby is and how good a view is obtained.)
There’s no evidence to suggest that these scans aren’t safe and most expectant parents do gain reassurance from them. While ultrasound scanning during pregnancy is widely accepted as safe for both you and your baby, however, some experts do not recommend having them purely for a photo since they consider that your baby is being exposed to more ultrasound than is medically necessary.
Where can you have a scan done?
Because the equipment required to do 3D and 4D scans is expensive, it’s unlikely that they’ll be offered on the NHS anytime soon, so, if you’d like a 3D or 4D scan, you’ll probably need to arrange it privately, and pay a fee. Some clinics will give you a recording of the scan on DVD, though this is likely to cost extra. Make sure you read the small print carefully or ask plenty of questions before you proceed. Some providers, for example, will offer you a free repeat scan if you can’t see your baby’s face. Others, however, will not, so check your particular company’s policy in this regard.
Some private providers may offer you a free repeat scan if you can’t see your baby’s face. However, others will advise you of the limits of ultrasound and may not offer to repeat the scan. Check the company’s policy before parting with any money.
Alarming 4D evidence of maternal smoking!
We’re all well aware of the dangers of smoking in pregnancy, but now researchers at England’s Durham and Lancaster universities have disclosed that the results of a recent pilot study have added weight to existing evidence that smoking is harmful to foetuses as they develop in the womb and warrant further investigation.
Observing 4D ultrasound scans, the researchers found that foetuses whose mothers were smokers, showed a significantly higher rate of mouth movements than the normal declining rate of movements expected in a foetus during pregnancy.
The researchers suggested that the reason for this might be that the foetal central nervous system, which controls movements in general and facial movements in particular, did not develop at the same rate and in the same manner as in foetuses of mothers who did not smoke during pregnancy.
For the study, the researchers observed 80 4D ultrasound scans of 20 foetuses to assess subtle mouth and touch movements. (Scans were taken at four different intervals between 24 and 36 weeks of pregnancy.)
Four of the foetuses belonged to mothers who smoked an average of fourteen cigarettes per day, while the remaining 16 foetuses were being carried by mothers who were non smokers.
‘Foetal facial movement patterns differ significantly between foetuses of mothers who smoked compared to those of mothers who didn’t smoke,’ said lead author Dr Nadja Reissland from Durham University’s Department of Psychology. ‘Our findings concur with others that stress and depression have a significant impact on foetal movements, and need to be controlled for, but additionally these results point to the fact that nicotine exposure per se has an effect on foetal development over and above the effects of stress and depression. A larger study is needed to confirm these results and to investigate specific effects, including the interaction of maternal stress and smoking.’
All of the foetuses were clinically assessed and were healthy when born.