Suspect You Might Be Pregnant? What to Know About an Early Pregnancy Ultrasound

Woman getting an early pregnancy ultrasound

An ultrasound can be performed as early as 6 weeks. Here’s what to know and how to prepare for an early pregnancy ultrasound appointment.

Early pregnancy can be a rollercoaster ride of physical symptoms and emotions. If you suspect you may be pregnant, it’s a good idea to take a pregnancy test and book an appointment with your healthcare practitioner. To confirm that you are pregnant, your practitioner will order a blood test and send you for your first ultrasound. When performed in early pregnancy, an ultrasound is sometimes called a dating scan, as it will help establish your due date.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why you might get an early pregnancy ultrasound
  • What to expect at the appointment and how to prepare
  • What an early ultrasound will show
  • Questions to ask at your ultrasound and during your follow-up
  • How to access and share your ultrasound images

Why get an early pregnancy ultrasound?

Getting an ultrasound is a normal part of pregnancy monitoring and the best way for your practitioner to keep tabs on your health and the development of the embryo. There are several reasons why you might have an early ultrasound:

  • To establish the gestational age of the embryo. To measure the size of your embryo using crown rump length helps narrow down your due date.
  • To count the number of embryos. If there is more than one embryo, an early ultrasound will attempt to discern if the embryos share a gestational and amniotic sac to determine the type of twins or multiple.
  • To confirm the pregnancy is viable. A viable intrauterine pregnancy is safely implanted inside the uterus. An ectopic pregnancy (planted outside the uterus) or molar pregnancy (fertilized egg develops into a cyst-like mass) is not viable.
  • To detect the embryo’s heartbeat, often for the first time! The fetal heart rate will also be determined.
  • To locate any sources of vaginal bleeding. If you’ve shown indications of potential complications, like bleeding or abdominal pain, an ultrasound can help pinpoint exactly where.
  • To proactively monitor for potential complications, if your own or your family health history recommends it.
  • To examine your cervix, ovaries and uterus, which ensures your body is reacting as expected during the early days of pregnancy. This examination can also confirm if there’s an empty gestational sac or other signs of miscarriage or pregnancy loss.

How early can an ultrasound detect pregnancy?

An ultrasound can determine a pregnancy as early as 4.5 weeks after your last period. Gestational age is calculated based on the first day of your last menstrual period and assumes a 28-day cycle.

What to expect at an early pregnancy ultrasound?

During an ultrasound, the sonographer runs a transducer wand over conductive gel to send high-frequency sound waves into the body. The echoes created by the sound waves are processed into images. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, ultrasounds are very safe, low-risk scans.

There are two types of pregnancy ultrasounds:

  • Transabdominal ultrasound scans a wider area of your belly to capture images through the abdominal wall. The technician covers the area with a lubricating conductive gel to run the transducer through. This type of ultrasound is typically used when the fetus is more developed, starting around 10 or 11 weeks.
  • Transvaginal ultrasound scans a smaller area more effectively to capture images by inserting a lubricated transducer wand into the vagina. Early in your pregnancy, you’re likely to receive a transvaginal ultrasound since the embryo is still very small at this point.

How to prepare for an early ultrasound appointment

A pregnancy ultrasound isn’t a complex scan, but there are some things you can do to prepare, including:

  • Bring a copy of your requisition with you: Your requisition specifies exactly which type of ultrasound exam you need. Having a copy with you will simplify the check-in process if your practitioner didn’t send it to the imaging clinic or hospital in advance.
  • Drink plenty of water in the week before your appointment: Good hydration keeps your amniotic fluid clear, which means the ultrasound images are sharper.
  • Book your appointment when your baby is most active: Movement will help the technician capture more images. Another suggestion is to have a cold and sugary drink just before your appointment.
  • Arrive with a full bladder: Sound waves and their echoes travel freely through liquid, so the sonographer can more easily capture images.
  • Bring a support person: Many appreciate having a partner or friend along for support, but check in advance that the hospital or imaging clinic will allow someone to accompany you in the exam room.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing: Wear clothing you can easily take on and off.

What can an early ultrasound pregnancy show?

What you can see in an early pregnancy ultrasound will depend on when you have it. Development is rapid in these early stages, so even half a week will make a difference in what the ultrasound can capture.

  • 4 weeks: This early, it’s possible to see endometrial thickening, but it’s also possible to find no evidence of pregnancy yet.
  • 5 weeks: The gestational sac, which surrounds the embryo in the early stages of pregnancy, becomes apparent.
  • 5.5 to 6 weeks: The yolk sac is visible. Located inside the gestational sac, the yolk sac nourishes the embryo and is absorbed by the end of the first trimester.
  • 5.5 to 6.5 weeks: At this stage, an ultrasound will distinguish the embryo, which is also sometimes called the fetal pole.
  • 7 weeks: Though it might be possible earlier, at 7 weeks you’re likely to be able to make out the fetal heartbeat.
  • 8 weeks: You can see the umbilical cord by 8 weeks, which passes nutrients and oxygen to the embryo.
  • 9 weeks: Limbs are becoming distinct, so you should see defined arms and legs.
  • 10 weeks: Developing hands and feet become more recognizable.
Labeled diagram of a pregnancy ultrasound image at 7 weeks

Ultrasound image at 7 weeks pregnant

Again, what the ultrasound will show depends entirely on the gestational age being accurate. Being off even by a few days can make a difference in whether or not the ultrasound can detect a heartbeat.

In early pregnancy you won’t see much in the way of fine detail: at 6 weeks, the embryo is only the size of a pea. From 811 weeks, you’ll be able to distinguish many more features, and in the 18-22 week anatomy scan, you’ll likely find out the sex of the baby.

Questions to ask during and after your ultrasound appointment

An ultrasound technician is not legally allowed to walk you through your scan results. But you can ask questions about the procedure itself, like:

  • How long will this appointment last?
  • Can I have someone with me during the ultrasound?
  • Can I take my own photos or videos during my appointment?
  • How can I access and share my images and results?
  • When will my practitioner receive the results from you?

The sonographer will send the images and a summary report to a radiologist, who interprets the images and then provides a summary report to your practitioner. During your follow-up appointment with your practitioner, you can ask more detailed questions, including:

  • Am I pregnant? Am I carrying one or multiple embryos?
  • What is the gestational age? When is my projected due date?
  • What are the signs of a healthy early pregnancy?
  • Did we detect a heartbeat?
  • What is the size, or crown rump length of the embryo?
  • Did the ultrasound show anything we need to follow up on?
  • Should I make any dietary or other lifestyle changes?
  • What are the next steps?
  • When is my next ultrasound? Is there any additional testing to consider?

How quickly can you get your ultrasound images and report?

If you’re excited to share your news with friends and family, you can use PocketHealth. Your images and reports are available through PocketHealth when the sonographer’s report is finalized, sometimes even before the follow-up appointment with your practitioner. Access your records here.

PocketHealth allows you to securely access and store your images and other health information in one place. If you choose, you can also use PocketHealth to share ultrasound images of your baby with loved ones so they can keep track of how your pregnancy is progressing.

If you need help deciphering the technical terminology in your ultrasound report, PocketHealth Report Reader can make help. Report Reader, provides easy-to-understand definitions of medical and technical terms. With a better understanding of your results, you confidently discuss the findings with your practitioner

How many more ultrasounds will I have in my pregnancy?

Ultrasounds are safe, trusted exams that give your practitioner the best information with which to monitor the progress of your pregnancy. Most practitioners will send you for an ultrasound at least twice:

  • Weeks 6 to 8: A dating scan during your first trimester
  • Weeks 18 to 22: An anatomy scan to measure fetal growth and development.

There is also an optional third ultrasound that typically happens during the later half of the first trimester, between weeks 1113, to measure nuchal translucency and asses risk for any chromosomal abnormalities.

If your pregnancy is deemed high-risk, you might have more ultrasounds so your practitioner can continually monitor your progress. High-risk indicators include:

  • ]Your age, if you are under 17 or over 35
  • Experiencing ongoing health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a mental health condition
  • Carrying twins or multiples
  • Having had complications with a previous pregnancy

Feel prepared for your pregnancy journey ahead

An early pregnancy ultrasound can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. Being prepared for your scan and follow-up appointment can help you feel more empowered from the very beginning. The more knowledge you have, the more empowered you’ll be at every step of your pregnancy journey, especially as you navigate those early days of pregnancy.

How PocketHealth works

Learn more about how to use PocketHealth to access and share your pregnancy ultrasound records.

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