Expectant moms can enhance bonding with their unborn baby by spending a few extra minutes gazing at the fetus' tiny features and gestures during a prenatal ultrasound examination, according to new research.
"Women are really affected not only by seeing the face, arms and legs but by the physical movement," said psychologist Zachariah Boukydis, lead author of the study. The research showed spending an average of six to seven additional minutes on ultrasounds can strengthen the maternal-fetal connection.
The fetus doesn't just float passively in the womb, said Boukydis, an associate professor at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school of child development. Instead, it's busy putting the thumb in the mouth, tasting the amniotic fluid, licking the uterine wall, touching the umbilical cord or crossing the legs and arms to get comfortable.
"How soothing for a woman to get the message that the baby or fetus can do some things for themselves," he said.
Routine ultrasounds, which are so thrilling and precious to some mothers that they purchase DVDs of the experience, are done between 18 and 20 weeks gestation, primarily to ensure the health of the baby.
Most doctors and the Food and Drug Administration caution against recreational ultrasounds offered by private companies because the long-term effect of repeated ultrasound exposure on the fetus is not known. While considered safe when properly used to glean information about a pregnancy, ultrasounds aren't completely innocuous, according to the FDA.
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday found that ultrasound can affect fetal brain development in mice. Dr. Pasko Rakic, chairman of the neurobiology department at Yale University School of Medicine, was the lead researcher of the study.
"Our study in mice does not mean that use of ultrasound on human fetuses for appropriate diagnostic and medical purposes should be abandoned," Rakic said.
The procedure directs high-frequency sound waves at tissues in the abdominal area. These sound waves produce a prenatal portrait of the fetus on a television monitor, which doctors use to evaluate its growth and development and look for abnormalities.
Often, the mother-to-be is allowed to look at the screen along with the sonographer, who is performing the measurements and looking for problems with the heart, lungs and internal organs.
But this isn't always the case. If the technician is anxious or pressed for time, the pregnant woman might not ask questions or watch the fetus' response to her own actions, including pressing on the abdomen, laughing, singing or talking.
Boukydis' study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Ultrasound Medicine, showed that the feelings of attachment in the group that received more time increased by about 20 percent compared with the group that received routine care. Anxiety scores went down by about 30 percent.
"It makes you feel better when you can see it," said Alicia Richardson, a visitor from Dallas who was shopping for maternity clothes recently in a Chicago-area Gap store. Richardson, who is expecting her second child in November, thought viewing the fetus helped increase her feelings of attachment. "I was definitely glad to see it was moving around and that something was really in there."
Boukydis, who is looking at how ultrasound consultation can affect depression levels during pregnancy, hopes the findings will inspire women to take better care of themselves - especially limiting smoking and drinking - during pregnancy. The research has also helped him develop a training manual for sonographers and obstetricians.
"Let's ask sonographers to take a bit longer and be sensitive to mothers," he said. If they aren't, he suggests that pregnant women quietly ask, "`Can I spend a little extra time looking and seeing what it does?' On a fundamental level, it's important to know that little person in there is not floating around passively," he said.
Still, not every woman needs to have an ultrasound as a reminder that a living being has taken up residence in the womb. "Vomiting and fetal movement were more than enough," said Chicago's Trina Kakacek, a mother of two.
Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.