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What Happens at The 12-Week Sonogram?

While many OBGYNs and prenatal care providers opt for an ultrasound to view your developing baby around six to eight weeks, and again at 20 weeks, it’s not that unusual for your doctor to recommend a 12-week ultrasound. At this time, you’ll get to check in on your baby — who’s now about the size of a lime at three months old — and usually get to take home several sonograms (the printed images from your ultrasound) to share with family and friends.

Why doctors want to see a sonogram at 12 weeks

At three months gestational age, doctors typically have a clear view of the fetus in the womb. During the 12-week ultrasound — which takes place between weeks 11 and 13 of your pregnancy — they’ll be snapping sonogram images to review, and will be looking for several things, including:

Size and development: As the fetus gets larger and easier to see, your doctor will be looking at your baby to ensure that they’re growing according to schedule, and that each body part is developing correctly. First off, a sonographer or doctor will measure the baby’s heartbeat, which normally is around 160 beats per minute at 12 weeks old. From there, they’ll look at baby’s heart to ensure there are the proper number of valves. They’ll also examine your baby’s brain and skull, as well as limbs and internal organs to ensure everything is as it should be.

Potential health problems: When examining a sonogram taken at 12 weeks, doctors can be on the lookout for any genetic abnormalities that may occur. This is especially important for individuals who have a family health history of certain conditions. Thanks to baby’s size at 12 weeks and particular development milestones, it’s easier for doctors to identify these issues for the first time. Knowing early on the potential for health conditions can help families begin to plan for their baby’s health early on.

Your reproductive health: While the 12-week ultrasound is primarily used to examine baby, your doctor will also be reviewing sonograms at this time to ensure your reproductive system is healthy. The fallopian tubes, ovaries, and your uterus are all under examination, to ensure that they’re in best working order for your future delivery and to prevent any complications.

What to consider when a nuchal translucency scan is recommended

Sometimes, a doctor or sonographer will offer to perform a nuchal translucency scan during the ultrasound, or recommend you return for this additional scan. This extra ultrasound (which is usually on done on your stomach, but sometimes requires a vaginal ultrasound) measures the size of the nuchal fold towards the back of the baby’s neck. If this area is thicker, it may be an indicator that there is some kind of chromosomal abnormality.  But, size isn’t a tell-tale indicator that something’s wrong. Instead, a nuchal translucency scan is a tool that can be combined with other prenatal testing, such as blood tests, to determine if further evaluation is necessary.

In most cases, a nuchal translucency scan that shows a high risk for abnormality can help you and your healthcare provider decide to proceed with further testing — such as an amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS) — to rule out potential birth defects or abnormalities.

Many expectant parents choose to skip a nuchal translucency scan if they have no family history of genetic conditions. Having this additional ultrasound is not necessary, but can be a helpful tool if you are concerned about your family health history.

Understanding the sonogram and what you’re seeing

Before heading in for your ultrasound appointment, it’s likely that your healthcare provider will recommend drinking several glasses of water. This extra fluid helps create a clearer image for the ultrasound technician, and makes for clearer sonograms. Be careful about overdoing it on liquids, though, because you will feel some pressure on your abdomen and bladder during the ultrasound.

Thanks to all that extra water, you’ll notice that black areas on the sonogram are fluid, while white areas are solid tissue and bone — making it clear to pick out what is your baby, and what isn’t.

By the time of a 12-week ultrasound, you’ll be able to pick out many of your baby’s tiny features, including their arms and legs, some organs (such as the heart, bladder, and stomach), and the skull and brain. You may also have a very wiggly baby by this point in time.

Some hospitals and doctor’s offices are able to send you home with not only printed sonograms, but videos from the ultrasound, which can catch little movements such as wiggling fingers and toes (though because baby is still quite small, it may be easier to see fingers and toes curling together, but not the individual digits).

When looking at your 12-week sonogram, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to tell your baby’s sex, and that’s simply because it’s just a little too early. Most sonographers can determine if your baby is a boy or a girl around 20 weeks, after baby has had several more weeks of development and growth. Stay patient!