Fetal echocardiography is a safe, noninvasive ultrasound procedure performed during pregnancy that enables the cardiologist to assess the structure, function and heart rhythm of the fetal heart. Ultrasound uses sound waves to take pictures of the fetal heart. There is no radiation exposure and no known risk with this type of test. Fetal echocardiography can help detect fetal heart abnormalities before birth, allowing for faster medical or surgical intervention once the baby is born.
Fetal echocardiograms are usually performed in the second trimester of pregnancy, at about 18-24 weeks. The test is done in a dimly lit room while the patient is lying on an exam table. It is painless and takes 20 to 45 minutes. It is fine for a family member to stay in the room during the test. Gel is applied to the ultrasound transducer and it is positioned over the abdomen to create the images. During the test the transducer probe will be moved around to obtain images of different locations and structures of the fetal heart.
Today, most congenital heart defects can be diagnosed before birth. Some heart problems may require immediate attention before or after delivery. Information obtained from the fetal echocardiogram can influence where your baby is delivered. Knowing about a potential heart problem prior to delivery gives the family a chance to prepare for the challenges they may face. Recognizing the difficulty of taking in the complicated new information, we allow dedicated time with the fetal cardiologist to explain the findings and answer questions. If the cardiologist identifies a heart problem, our team works with the family and obstetrician to develop a plan of care, including options for delivery. When appropriate, we also facilitate a consultation with the cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Devejian, to discuss surgical options and outcomes. We can also arrange an opportunity to meet other members of the pediatric cardiac team, as needed.
Indications in which a fetal echocardiogram may be necessary include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The obstetrician has identified a potential cardiac abnormality on routine prenatal ultrasound
- Sibling was born with a congenital (present at birth) heart defect
- family history of congenital heart disease (such as parents, aunts or uncles, or grandparents)
- Chromosomal or genetic abnormality discovered in the fetus
- Mother has taken certain medications that may cause congenital heart defects
- Mother has diabetes, phenylketonuria, or a connective tissue disease such as lupus
- Mother has had rubella during pregnancy
- Routine prenatal ultrasound has discovered possible non-heart or heart abnormalities