Fetal Echocardiogram

Fetal echocardiography is a type of imaging study that enables physicians to visualize the heart of the fetus before birth.

During a fetal echocardiogram, a probe that transmits and receives sound waves is used to generate real-time, moving images of the fetal heart. It is performed in similar fashion to a normal echocardiogram or obstetrical ultrasound.

Reasons for a Fetal Echocardiogram

A fetal echocardiogram is typically performed when there is a suspicion that the baby may have cardiac disease.

Common indications for performing a fetal echocardiogram include:

  • Family history of congenital heart disease
  • Previous children born with congenital heart disease
  • Suspected chromosomal abnormalities (for example, following amniocentesis)
  • Other fetal malformations (seen on a screening obstetric ultrasound)
  • Maternal diabetes
  • Irregularities in the fetal heartbeat.

Understanding a Fetal Echocardiogram

What Can Be Learned from a Fetal Echocardiogram?

A thorough fetal echocardiogram will provide physicians with a complete anatomical description of the fetal heart. It will also allow assessment of cardiac function and identify normal or abnormal cardiac rhythms.

Fetal echocardiograms are optimally performed between 18 and 24 weeks' gestation (approximately mid-pregnancy), but can be performed anytime after this period.

Prior to 18 weeks gestation, the small size of the fetus makes it progressively more difficult to image the heart earlier in pregnancy.  However, in certain high-risk pregnancies, it is possible to perform fetal echocardiography as early as 12-14 weeks’ gestation.

How Information from the Test Will Be Used

Information about fetal heart problems will be sent to your obstetrician and the pediatrician or neonatologists who would likely see the baby immediately following birth.

Some heart problems may require immediate attention after delivery of your baby. The information from the fetal echocardiogram can influence the choice of where the baby should be born (high-risk obstetric center vs. community facility) and may direct the initial stabilization of the baby right after birth.

Some cardiac problems, such as arrhythmias, may be able to be treated before the baby is born by administering anti-arrhythmia medications to the mother.

Knowing about a potential heart problem prior to delivery also gives a family a chance to learn more about the problem, which can help them prepare psychologically for dealing with the extra challenges they may face following birth, such as surgery or other interventions the child may require.

Description of the Fetal Echocardiogram

The test is essentially painless and is performed just like a routine obstetrical ultrasound. The test does require pregnant mothers to lie flat or on their sides, which is occasionally uncomfortable for moms in late pregnancy.

No special preparations are required prior to the fetal echocardiogram. The test takes approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete.

At Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the fetal echocardiogram is performed and interpreted by a cardiologist with special expertise in fetal imaging and cardiac ultrasound.

The test is performed as an outpatient in the pediatric echocardiography laboratory. Because a pediatric cardiac specialist performs the test, the study is interpreted "on the spot," and the results can be shared with the mother and family during the same visit in which the fetal echocardiogram is performed.

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Last Updated 03/2020

Reviewed by Lauren Boxell, RNIII, Jim Cnota, MD, and Allison Divanovic, MD

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