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Fetal Echocardiography

What is fetal echocardiography?

Fetal echocardiography (echo) uses sound waves to check the heart of your developing baby.

Fetal echo can help find heart defects before birth. If a heart problem can be found early, the the more likely treatment will work. This is because:

  • Healthcare providers may be able to treat the problem before birth, in some cases. 
  • Healthcare providers can get ready for problems that may happen during labor and delivery. 
  • An early delivery can be scheduled.
  • Once the baby is born, treatment may be done. This might be medicine or surgery.

Why might I need fetal echo?

Healthcare providers recommend fetal echo in these cases:

  • Another child was born with a heart defect
  • Family history of genetic heart problems
  • Genetic problem found in the fetus
  • You are taking certain medicines that may cause congenital heart defects. These medicines include certain medicines for seizures or acne.
  • You have abused alcohol or drugs during your pregnancy
  • You have certain health problems such as diabetes, lupus, or phenylketonuria
  • You have had certain infections during your pregnancy. These include German measles (rubella) or cytomegalovirus.
  • You had abnormal test results from other tests

If you have risk factors such as a family history of heart problems, fetal echos are often done in the second trimester of pregnancy. This is at about 18 to 24 weeks.

What are the risks of fetal echo?

Fetal echo does not have any risks for either the fetus or mother. The lowest possible ultrasound settings are used.

How do I get ready for fetal echo?

You don't need to do anything to get ready for fetal echo. Plan for 30 minutes to 2 hours for the test.

What happens during fetal echo?

A specially trained pediatric cardiologist, maternal-fetal specialist, obstetrician, or radiologist does fetal echo. In general the steps include:

  • You will lie on an exam table. You won’t likely need to change your clothes. 
  • The provider will put gel on your abdomen. 
  • The provider will use an electronic device called a transducer that sends out sound waves. 
  • He or she will move the transducer around to get the best images of the fetal heart. You may feel pressure as the transducer moves over your abdomen.
  • Once the exam is complete, the gel is wiped off. 

What happens after fetal echo?

Your healthcare provider will look at the results. He or she may order more tests or procedures. They may include:

  • Treatment. This may be medicine or procedures to treat fetal heart problems.
  • Fetal wellness assessments. To check overall fetal health, you may be asked to count fetal movements.
  • Nonstress test. This checks fetal heart rate and movement.
  • Biophysical profile (BPP).  This is an ultrasound exam to check overall fetal health. It checks heart rate, breathing, movement, muscle tone, and the amount of amniotic fluid.
  • Ultrasounds or echocardiography. These are tests done to confirm the diagnosis. They also follow fetal growth, watch for fetal heart changes, and check for other problems.
  • Amniocentesis. This test can find chromosomal and genetic disorders and certain birth defects. The healthcare provider puts a needle through the abdominal and uterine wall and into the amniotic sac. He or she takes a sample of amniotic fluid.
  • Genetic counseling. A counselor helps you learn your risks of having a baby with  genetic defects.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sarah, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 2/19/2015
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