Scans during pregnancy can make some mums-to-be a little nervy, which is perfectly natural. Most of the time scans are there to simply help confirm your little one is developing healthily - with the added bonus that you get to see your baby moving around. But sometimes they can reveal a few more serious issues. Either way, it’s better to be given the whole picture, but how many scans will you have during your pregnancy? In the UK you will be offered at least two, the first at 8 to 14 weeks and the second at 18 to 21 weeks.
Below, we explain what’s involved during the main scans so you know what to expect. If you do have any more questions, however, then speak to your midwife or contact our team of friendly experts.
What’s an ultrasound scan like?
Most pregnancy scans are carried out using ultrasound, and they don’t hurt one bit. A gel is applied to your tummy - it may feel a little cool - and then a small hand-held device is moved over your skin, which sends an image of your little one to a screen. You may be asked to have a full bladder for some of your scans - this helps to create a clearer picture of your baby.
Types of scans
Early pregnancy scans
If you’re experiencing pain or bleeding, or if you’ve had a previous miscarriage or an ectopic pregnancy (one in which the foetus grows outside the womb), you might be asked to have a scan between 6 and 10 weeks. Your baby will be teeny at this stage, so in order to get as clear a picture as possible, the scan may be carried out using a small probe that goes inside your vagina.
It’s a very simple procedure but it’s completely natural to feel a bit worried beforehand. If you’re feeling a little nervous about what to expect, make sure you speak to your midwife or doctor – they are there to help and will be able to answer any questions you might have. And remember, there is no such thing as a silly question, so don’t hold back. The scan will check the heartbeat as well as your baby’s exact age and size.
Dating and nuchal translucency (NT) scan
The dating scan, also known as the 12 week scan, is offered between 8 and 14 weeks and it will give you an accurate due date. The scan also assesses several important details including the age of your baby, whether you might be expecting more than one, the heartbeat and whether there are any obvious abnormalities. Lastly, this scan also checks to ensure your ovaries are in a healthy condition.
What happens at the 12 week scan?
The 12 week scan or the dating scan will last 10 minutes or so, during which several images of your baby are taken. Before the scan gets underway, the sonographer, a specially-trained healthcare professional, will put some gel on the top of your tummy. They may also pop some tissue paper around you to avoid getting the gel on your clothes. Don’t worry if they spill a bit, though, it easily washes off! The gel is there to make sure there is good contact between your skin and the hand-held scanning device the sonographer uses. It’s to help them see your baby!
Once the scan begins, a black and white image will appear on the screen in front of you. As the sonographer positions you so you can both get a good view of your baby, you might feel a little bit of pressure on your tummy. It won’t hurt, though.
Sometimes it can be tricky to make out your baby’s form and features, so don’t be afraid to ask the sonographer to help you see your little one. They will help point out your baby’s body shape, and will check that everything is as it should be. If all is well with your little one, this can be a special time for expectant parents, because you’ll be able to see your baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound.
Seeing your little one on the monitor is such an exciting experience and many mums often feel quite emotional. It’s ok to be a little teary and quite natural, too! You’ll be given a printout to take home with you (some hospitals charge for this), which you can show to your loved ones so they can share in your excitement.
All mums are offered an NT scan which is combined with the dating scan.
What is a Nuchal Translucency (NT) scan?
A Nuchal fold scan reveals the likelihood of your baby having Down’s Syndrome or other abnormalities. An assessment is made based on things such as your age, the thickness of the fold at the back of your baby’s neck, and a blood test. If there is a high probability of an abnormality, they might take a little sample of your amniotic fluid to get a better idea. This will not be performed at the scan. If they offer this test, you will first meet with a specialist to discuss the procedure and what the results may mean. You and your partner will be able to discuss this fully with your midwife or doctor.
This process can be particularly stressful for some mums, but remember your doctor and midwife are there to support you, so don’t be afraid to lean on them for advice.
20 week scan
The 20 week pregnancy scan is offered on the NHS and is the one that most mums get excited about – not only because it’s a real milestone, but also because your little one starts to look like an actual baby! You may (if baby is in the right postilion) even find out if you’re having a boy or a girl, though this is optional if you prefer surprises. It takes around 15-20 minutes and most hospitals will let you buy pictures taken from the scan.
The scan is usually offered between 18 and 21 weeks is known as the anomaly scan as it and allows the specialist to check your baby from head to toe. Here is what they’ll look at:
- Your baby’s head, to check for any obvious brain problems.
- The spine and abdomen, to see that everything is aligned and properly developed.
- The size and shape of your baby’s heart.
- The stomach, which you should be able to see below the heart. You might be able to see some of the amniotic fluid your baby has swallowed – it will look like a black bubble in their little tummy!
- Your baby’s kidneys and bladder.
- Your baby’s little hands and feet.
- The placenta, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid.
- The measurements of your baby’s head, abdomen and thigh bone, to ensure that they are growing as expected.
If there are any signs of problems, a specialist will speak to you and you’ll be offered another scan.
Are you worried about your 20 week scan?
- Your 20 week scan is completely routine - everyone has one - and it is done to make sure and confirm that everything is ok. Here are four reasons why your scan will be exciting, rather than a bit of a worry:
- It’s an opportunity to celebrate the fact that you’re halfway through your pregnancy.
- Measurements will be taken so you can see just how much your baby has already grown.
- You’ll be able to spot some exciting changes in your baby – they’ll have more distinguishable features, and even their own tiny fingerprints!
- If you want to, you may also be able to find out if your baby is a girl or a boy!
You will only be offered growth scans if your midwife is worried about baby's growth when measuring your little one, if you have any pre-existing or pregnancy related medical conditions that can affect growth, or if you have had a previously low or high birth weight baby.
Is ultrasound safe?
Ultrasound scans have been used for decades, but some expectant parents still worry about whether or not they are safe and how many ultrasound scans they should be having during their pregnancy. It’s perfectly natural to be a little nervous, but there are no known risks or evidence to show that ultrasound scans are harmful to your baby when done by your healthcare professional.
Ultrasound uses sound waves instead of radiation, so it’s much safer than an X-ray, and it helps you and your doctor determine if your pregnancy is healthy.
It’s usually possible to find out if you're having twins during your 12 week scan. Sometimes having twins is referred to as a multiple pregnancy because it’s possible to have more than two! The scan is exactly the same for all women, whether they are expecting twins or just having one baby, but you should expect the ultrasound to take a little bit longer.
The twin scan will try to determine whether or not your babies share a placenta or have one each. If your babies share a placenta, it means they’re identical twins. If they have two separate placentas, it means they could be either identical or non-identical twins. One-third of identical twins have separate placentas, so it’s nothing to fret over if that is the case.
If the sonographer is still struggling to determine whether your babies share a placenta after your 12 week scan, they will offer you another scan. Knowing this detail helps your doctor to look after your babies during your pregnancy, just in case they need extra special care!
Have a question about your scans during pregnancy?
Remember, if you'd like to know more about your pregnancy, why not give one of our friendly experts a call on 0800 977 8880. Or ask us a question online, instantly, using Live Chat Monday to Friday, 8am - 8pm.