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Fetal echocardiography is a type of medical imaging performed to visualize the heart of a developing fetus. While normal fetal ultrasound usually shows the heartbeat and some details of the physical structure of the heart, especially when the imaging is supervised by a skilled ultrasonographer, fetal echocardiography provides a more detailed image. It is performed by a cardiologist who is familiar with evaluating ultrasound images and identifying abnormalities that may appear.
This type of medical imaging is not recommended in all pregnancies. While there are no known risks to ultrasound procedures, there is also not a clear benefit to using fetal echocardiography in a healthy pregnancy. The test would most likely be negative and thus provide no new or important information. In pregnancies where there is a risk of a heart abnormality, however, fetal echocardiography may be recommended. Some changes may need to be made to plans for prenatal and after birth plans in order to protect the baby in cases where the heart is not healthy.
One reason to order a fetal echocardiogram is an abnormal heart rate during an examination, a strange finding on a fetal ultrasound, or an abnormal amniocentesis result. These can be indicators that there is something unusual about the fetus that could benefit from further exploration. Family history, exposure to certain medications, and insulin-dependent diabetes in the mother are also reasons to request fetal echocardiography. The test will not be recommended if a doctor does not think it is necessary, but it may be recommended as a precaution, so expecting mothers should not be concerned if they are told to get an echocardiogram.
During the procedure, an ultrasound probe can be inserted vaginally or moved across the abdomen. The practitioner administering the test will use a low setting to minimize exposure to ultrasound, and will move the probe around to get a view that is as crisp as possible. Once the imaging study is complete, the results can be interpreted.
Fetal echocardiography may reveal that there appears to be nothing wrong with the developing fetus, in which case the treatment plan for managing the pregnancy should continue as it is. In other cases, the results may be inconclusive. More testing including a followup echocardiogram may be needed to determine whether or not there is a heart abnormality. Fetal echocardiography can also show that there is a problem with the heart, which provides time to prepare and make plans. These may include preparing for surgery after birth to correct a defect or taking other steps to protect the mother and developing baby.