Dr Manny's Notes

Why every mother should consider a fetal echocardiogram

Manny Alvarez

Pregnancy is a beautiful thing, an unborn baby growing inside the shelter of his mother’s body. Many mothers would never think that anything could be wrong with their little ones but would make great sacrifices if they knew of any problems. Thankfully, technology, such as fetal echocardiograms, has come a long way to help people spot developmental problems. To perceive problems with the baby’s heart early on, every mother should consider getting a fetal echocardiogram sometime during her pregnancy.

A fetal echocardiogram, or fetal echo, is an ultrasound that analyzes the baby’s heart in depth. Although similar to a normal ultrasound, the fetal echo picks up more details of the heart’s structure. It also shows the blood flow within the heart, allowing the doctor to see abnormalities in the heart’s function even if the structure appears normal.

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Most patients who need a fetal echo will receive this in-depth ultrasound during 18—24 weeks of pregnancy. At this stage, the baby’s heart has had ample time to develop. Most doctors will only recommend this test if a baby has an increased risk for heart defects. They will also order a fetal echo if they have seen abnormalities on a recent ultrasound.However should fetal echocardiogram be routine to all pregnant patients?.

The Jimmy Kimmel Story

According to the Children’s Heart Foundation, an estimated 40,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects every year. Unfortunately, many of these cases go undiagnosed.

Parents may find out about the heart problem at their baby’s birth, or the baby may continue to suffer the effects of these heart problems until a serious symptom arises. Although fetal echocardiograms take away some of this surprise, many women do not go through this helpful test.

Just last week, one celebrity couple found out the surprising fact that their newborn son had a severe heart defect. Several hours after Jimmy Kimmel’s son, Billy, was born, a nurse discovered a heart murmur along with troubling skin discoloration.

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Although heart murmurs are common in infants, the nurse wanted to check into the baby’s health. With closer examination, doctors determined that Billy Kimmel needed open heart surgery, having discovered several dangerous defects in the baby’s heart. Fortunately, a doctor was able to perform surgery quickly, and the precious newborn is now doing well.

Consider a Fetal Echo

Just like many other parents of babies with heart defects, the Kimmels simply had no idea that anything was wrong with their son. To deal with congenital heart defects more quickly, doctors should urge their patients to get a fetal echo even if the babies do not have an increased risk.

At the same time, women should approach their doctors on the subject and insist on a fetal echo during pregnancy. Finally, insurance companies should cover any reason for receiving the high-level ultrasound, even if it is patient-initiated.

This life-saving test can help both doctors and parents prepare for surgery, if needed. With the advanced notice that fetal echoes provide, doctors can have in-depth knowledge of any present heart conditions and make necessary arrangements to act quickly once the babies are born.

Risks

Currently, researchers have not found any known risks because of fetal echocardiograms. The technology uses high level sound waves without any radiation, making the testing entirely safe for both the mother and baby.

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On the day of the exam, the mother will simply meet with a specially trained sonographer. Then, the mother will need to undress at the waist for a transvaginal echocardiogram or uncover her stomach for the abdominal version. Most women will receive the abdominal echocardiogram.

Just like a normal ultrasound, the sonographer will apply a lubricating jelly and rub a device across the mother’s stomach that will form the picture. Depending on the heart’s condition, the process could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour, sometimes longer. A pediatric cardiologist will then analyze the pictures and relate the results to the mother.

Because expectant mothers do not risk anything, they should seriously consider getting a fetal echocardiogram during pregnancy. While most babies’ hearts do develop normally, a small percentage are born with congenital heart defects. In these cases, a fetal echo will prepare the doctors and the parents for the next steps. Then, doctors can act quickly and efficiently once the baby is born, working hard to give this little one a long and meaningful life.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.