What’s Wrong With Ultrasounds

I’m a nerd. I love learning, particularly by reading, and when I take up a new pursuit I put everything into it. I feel like i’ve signed up for a 6-months-long, independent study program with a grueling final exam at the end. Luckily, I have a few trust-worthy lab partners and a lot of enthusiasm to learn. I’m also a cynic. I like to look for holes in arguments and consider the sources. So i’ve been doing a lot of critical thinking.

I recently finished reading a book called The Business of Baby by Jennifer Margulis. The subtitle is “What doctors don’t tell you, what corporations try to sell you, and how to put your pregnancy, childbirth, and baby before their bottom line”.  It was an interesting and informative read, despite the fact that it seemed a bit over the top. The case studies used to prove her points were incredibly extreme and clearly not the norm. The message I took from the book is basically that hospitals are dangerous, doctors DO NOT have your best interest at heart, and even those that are trying to do the right thing and truly care for their patients are handicapped by things like insurance concerns and hospital regulations, or are brainwashed by corporations.

That said, I did learn a few interesting things, one of which had to do with ultrasounds (scroll to the bottom if you don’t feel like reading the backstory). My best friend from way back in 2nd grade and I have been on surprisingly similar journeys. Despite losing a bit of closeness in high school when surfing completely overtook my life, we ended up at the same college (UCSD) with the same major (psychology). We were married the same year, and are both currently pregnant with our first babies (she’s a couple months ahead of me).

4th grade playing dress-up
4th grade playing dress-up
lisa and i at 8th grade graduation
lisa and i at 8th grade graduation
with our husbands at our respective weddings
with our husbands at our respective weddings
lisa and i now
lisa and i now

After graduating from UCSD I went on to pursue a surfing career, while Lisa earned her PhD in Psychology, specializing in Autism. When I found out she was pregnant, I was really surprised to hear that she was planning to have only the bare minimum number of ultrasounds – probably just two. She said that ultrasounds are linked to autism and she didn’t want to take the risk. I should have asked for more details. I should have asked her how exactly ultrasounds are linked to Autism.

As I said before, i’m a cynic. While I totally trust Lisa, I don’t necessarily trust the science, especially if I haven’t read the studies myself. I’ve heard that vaccines are linked to autism. GMOs to ADHD. And everything, absolutely EVERYTHING will give you cancer.

My midwife had suggested getting a maximum of 2 ultrasounds – 1 to confirm the pregnancy and set a due date, and the second to find out the sex at 20 weeks. I figured how bad could they really be if the midwife was sanctioning them (albeit recommending the minimum necessary)? By the time Lisa told me she wasn’t planning to have any, I’d already had one. I went to the Dr. when I was just 6 weeks pregnant to confirm that I was actually pregnant. He did an ultrasound, which wasn’t very exciting since at that point there’s not much to see. Not even a heartbeat. I asked the Dr. how often he usually performs ultrasounds, and he replied, “at every visit,” (which means once a month), “We like to look at the baby.” He seemed appalled, but eventually accepting, when I told him I only wanted the minimum ultrasounds.

Then at 9.5 weeks I had some spotting. It was light in volume and dark in color, which everything I could find on the internet told me was probably ok, but I was nervous. When there was a bit more spotting the next day, I freaked out and we went to the Dr. immediately. I then had my second ultrasound which confirmed that everything was ok. I actually got to hear the heartbeat for the first time! The Dr. told me the bleeding was caused by a subcorionic hematoma – a not uncommon and not usually serious separation of the uterus and chorionic membrane. It can be a problem if it’s large, but luckily mine was small. I’d had a cold a few days before and a really bad cough that had me hacking all night with some fierce core-shuddering coughing spasms. That was most likely the cause. I was advised to take it super easy – bed rest for three days – and then the absolute minimum amount of activity for two weeks to let it heal. He also advised another ultrasound in 2 weeks to make sure it was gone.


So, at 12 weeks, I got another ultrasound. My third. My friend Nikki who is also pregnant here had recommended a new Dr. who is young, was educated in London, and seemed better to her than the Dr. we’d both been seeing previously. I made the switch as well and he informed me that he’s the only Dr. certified to perform the 12 week chromosomal abnormality tests that identify risks for defects such as Down Syndrome. Nikki had just had this test done and raved to me about how awesome it was to see all the physical structures and the relief of hearing she was low risk. When the Dr. asked if I was interested, I said “yes, please”.

If I had already read the section on ultrasounds in Margulis’ book, I would not have opted to have the test done. The test ended up taking about 30 min of pure ultrasound time (in an hour long appointment), and while it was really fun to see all the fingers and toes, and be told that I was also low risk and all the parts looked normal and healthy, after reading more about ultrasounds I don’t think it was worth it. But I was also happy to see that my hematoma was gone.

So, now for the part you’ve been wondering since you clicked into this post. What’s wrong with ultrasounds? I advise you to do your own research, but according to Margulis, in 2006 a neuroscientist at Yale (Pasko Rakic) found that prenatal exposure to ultrasounds changed the way the neurons in mice distributed themselves in the brain. A lot is still not understood, but they found that a smaller percentage of cells migrated to the upper cortical layers of the mouse brain (where higher level thinking and processing occurs). The book also includes more description of how brain cells form and work together and how that relates to the way scientists believe an autistic brain operates. I won’t go into detail, but I encourage you to read for yourself. It has been shown that ultrasound waves are a form of energy known to deform cell membranes, so you can imagine that that energy can’t be a good thing for the rapidly growing cells of a developing fetus, particularly the highly sensitive stem cells in the brain.

After reading, I told my husband that i’d changed my mind and did not want to have another ultrasound to find out the sex of our baby. He was very surprised and argued against the decision. We  both really want a boy and have decided that if we end up having a girl, it would be better to know in advance and adjust our mindset to that, rather than feel any bit of disappointment on delivery day. I gave him the book, told him to read the chapter on ultrasounds and then we’d talk. After reading the section himself, he agreed with me. Whether or not it’s true that ultrasounds cause autism, or whether it’s simply that ultrasonic waves can trigger autism in a brain already predisposed to it is unclear. However, we both decided that there seemed to be enough evidence to not warrant the risk. And since i’ve already had three ultrasounds, we don’t want to subject our baby to any more.

Anyone with an opinion or a link to a study showing evidence one way or another, please comment in the section below!


8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Ultrasounds”

  1. I’m so excited that you’re sharing such valuable information about birth. It’s so important to think for yourself and remember that your doctor is just one source of (opinionated and insurance influenced) information. A book I highly recommend is: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth (Henci Goer), and a couple other books I find useful: Ina May’s Guid to Childbirth, and The Birth Partner. It’s so great to be going through this journey with a friend to call who understands. I’m excited for both of you!

  2. Hi Holly. It’s me again. I find the whole ultra sound thing is kinda interesting, yet I was afraid to get one. When I was pregnant with my first son, there was no such thing. He will be thirty six in June. Baby number two just turned thirty two. When I was carrying him, ultra sounds just came out. I was barely twenty four years old, so I was a bit of a push over, because I was still quite young. But everything in me said it was wrong. I can’t explain it, call it instinct. I could be wrong, and lots of people have them and think it is fine. And in all likelihood, it probably is. My doctor asked me if I wanted to have one, and I told him I would think about it. The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was with it. I think my biggest fear was that it was so new, and I thought my child would pay the price way down the road. I believe in my heart of hearts that I am right. I also felt that my child would be what he would be, no matter what. He would be born when he would be born, he would be as healthy as he was able, and I would love him no matter what. In the big picture, what is an ultrasound gonna do? If the child is less than “perfect” what would have I done? Toss him aside like he meant nothing? Of course not. Just remember my beautiful friend, God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle. You will have lots of time to marvel and kiss those toes and fingers and every other part. It is such a rush to find out boy or girl when the poor little muffin makes it’s way into the world via inflatable pool.
    Oh yeah, I for some reason think you are going to have a boy. Don’t ask me why. But I just think it. I hope I am right, because sons are the cat’s ass. I love them to death. Go with your instincts my dear, and you will always be right..xoxo

  3. You get an ultrasound to find out if you’re pregnant? I’m pretty sure you’ll know for sure sooner, or later. Get one to find out the sex? Again, sooner, or later. Humans have gotten along perfectly well in the very vast majority of cases over hundreds of thousands of years without ultrasound or fetal monitors. Our lives are made up of a constant bombardment of electrical waves. C
    ut back where you can.

  4. Great post Holly! For the record, I did not say that I was going to avoid all ultrasounds, just limit it to those medically necessary. When we had that conversation, I had already had one brief ultrasound at 8 weeks to confirm the pregnancy and I just had one more at 22 weeks to make sure all the organs are looking good. We want the sex to be a surprise, but I did want to know if there were going to be any need for immediate surgery after the birth. I wouldn’t say that ultrasounds cause autism. Autism seems to be a epigenetic disorder, in which certain environmental experiences in the womb can turn on certain genes that are linked to the development of autism. Ultrasounds can be one of those experiences and so can the mother having the flu (or other sickness which raises her core temperature).
    Just assume that you are going to have a girl, then you will either be prepared or relieved when the time comes 😉

  5. Holly- The title of your entry really caught my attention so I clicked and read. I usually would never leave a such a personal comment but when I read this all I could think about was what my friend and I experienced a few years ago as we went though our 2nd pregnancy each. Prenatal ultrasounds (specifically the 20 week ultrasound) arguably saved the lives of both our baby girls. Without going into details (because I don’t want to make you nervous as chances are you would not have to deal with what we went through), I was so thankful to the technology and doctors who gave us the knowledge and care we needed. I was happy to see you welcomed comments because with having a baby in Nicaragua, I feel its worth considering a 20 week scan. There are things the doctors and hospitals and Managua are just not equipped to handle and on the off chance you received news like we did, you would have time to make the best plans for you and your baby. I hope this is not offensive, but more thought challenging. And for the record I also thought it was ridiculous to have a scan at every appointment, but I was thankful for a 28 week scan I chose to do in the US. We wish you guys the very best on this awesome adventure!

  6. Holly,

    I only did one ultrasound due to the same concerns you mentioned. We did not want to find out the sex of the baby. It’s the one surprise we didn’t want to spoil. You will be happy whether it’s a boy or girl. We wanted a boy too but somehow I knew I would end up with a girl and the girliest girl at that! It’s a blessing either way. You’ll be happy you didn’t find out!!

  7. Holly,

    Congrats and keep on ripping!!!

    Jennifer Margulis is journalist, not trained doctor. I’m also a cynic. When my wife was pregnant, it was first time I decided to just trust our doctor.

    Switching topics to the ultrasounds and finding out the sex of baby…
    Amazingly both my wife and I agreed and decided to wait to find out the sex. To me the sex of the baby didn’t matter because we were going to love him or her just as much. I just liked that fact that our baby would be born into this world without any preconceived notions. Finding out the sex of the baby in the delivering room was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Everyone else thought we were crazy for waiting but its what people did for hundreds of year prior to ultra sounds.
    Our daughter is now 9 months old and we have been taking swim lessons since 6 months. I can’t wait to take her out on the surfboard when she is a older but the first step is getting her comfortable with water.

    Congrats again and wishing you and your husband the best of luck!


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