Fetal echocardiography uses an ultrasound probe to generate sound-based images of a baby’s heart, allowing doctors to better view its structure and function before birth. The majority of Congenital Heart Defects (CHD) can be diagnosed with fetal echo, with some exceptions. Some problems, such as very small holes in the heart, are difficult to detect even with advanced equipment.
The most common reason a pregnant woman visits Sibley Heart Center Cardiology for a fetal echo is upon referral from her obstetrician or perinatologist.
They may detect something unusual on a routine ultrasound and suspect a problem with the heart,” said Erik Michelfelder, MD, Director of Fetal Cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center. “They will then send the mom to us to confirm their findings and make a detailed diagnosis.”
Other maternal indications that can prompt a referral for a fetal echo include a family history of heart disease, especially if either mother, father or a prior child has a diagnosis of CHD. If the mother is on medication that has the potential to cause birth defects, or if she has certain autoimmune diseases or diabetes, a fetal echo may be performed. Sibley cardiologists are also asked to evaluate abnormal rhythms in the fetal heart and to scan identical twins for cardiac abnormalities.
Fetal echocardiography is typically done in the second trimester, between weeks 18 to 24, but it can be done as early as 13 to 14 weeks, if the mother is very high risk. A host of findings can be identified through fetal echo, allowing doctors to create treatment plans for delivery and immediate postnatal care, or even treat babies while still in the womb.
“There are certain fetal abnormalities – structural or functional – that the baby may tolerate well inside the mother, but the physiology can change immediately upon birth,” Dr. Michelfelder said. “In those cases, we make a plan for cardiac care to begin right away. Some arrythmias and functional conditions in the baby can respond in utero to medications given to the mom that cross the placenta.”
To learn more about fetal echocardiography, visit:
For more information about Children’s Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.