What is a fetal echocardiogram?
An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart. A fetal echocardiogram is an ultrasound of a baby's heart before he or she is born. The fetal echocardiogram is performed just like a prenatal ultrasound of the baby, on the outside of the mother's belly, but focuses just on the baby's heart. The fetal echocardiogram can show all the chambers of heart, the valves of the heart, and the arteries and veins that attach to the heart. It can show the way the blood flows in the heart and the rhythm of the heart.
When is a fetal echocardiogram performed during pregnancy?
A fetal echocardiogram can be performed after about 18 weeks of pregnancy up until the baby is born. Most fetal echocardiograms are done between 22 and 26 weeks of pregnancy. This is when doctors can get the best pictures of the baby's heart.
What are common reasons to perform a fetal echocardiogram?
There are many reasons to do a fetal echocardiogram. Most mothers will have a regular ultrasound done by their obstetrician to look for abnormalities in the baby. This is usually done between 18 and 22 weeks of pregnancy. If the baby's heart looks abnormal, an obstetrician or a pediatric cardiologist will do a fetal echocardiogram to look more closely at all the structures of the heart.
Another reason to perform a fetal echocardiogram is if there is a history of family members born with a heart defect. Congenital heart defects can accompany other types of problems, so there may be abnormalities on the regular ultrasound that may make the obstetrician concerned about the heart.
When mothers have certain medical problems during pregnancy, this may increase the risk of heart problems in their babies and may be a reason to look at the baby's heart using a fetal echocardiogram.
What happens if the baby's heart is abnormal?
Knowing about a heart problem before a baby is born is helpful for many reasons. If a fetal echocardiogram shows an abnormality of the baby's heart, then parents meet with the team that specializes in the care of babies with heart problems. This team often includes obstetricians, pediatric cardiologists, neonatologists and at times pediatric cardiac surgeons. The team explains what the abnormality is and what it means for your baby. They review the options for the pregnancy and delivery and work with families to create a plan for the birth. Parents are able to prepare for what will happen during the rest of the pregnancy, through the birth and after the baby is born. For more complex heart problems, it's safer for the baby to be born in a hospital that can provide expert care for newborns with heart defects.
What are the limitations of fetal echocardiograms?
The baby's heart is very small at the time fetal echocardiograms are typically performed. This means there is a possibility that some minor defects, such as abnormalities of the heart valves or small holes in the heart, may not be detectable before birth. There are also changes in the way that blood flows through the heart after birth; fetal echocardiograms cannot tell if those changes will happen normally. If there are any concerns about a baby's heart, an echocardiogram will be performed on the baby after birth.
To make an appointment with the Children's Heart Program, please call 410-328-4FIT (4348) or 1-800-373-4111 (referring physicians only).
This page was last updated: June 21, 2013