Fetal Echocardiogram

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Fetal echo - Seal of echocardiography accreditation by IAC

If your obstetrician referred you for a fetal echocardiogram, it means they want a fetal cardiologist to take a closer look at your unborn baby’s heart.

While this is not the news anyone wants to receive, the ability to create detailed images of the baby’s developing heart now will give specialists time to monitor your baby’s growth and prepare the care team to help your baby get off to a good start toward a healthy life

For now, the safest place for your developing baby is inside your womb. Maternal-fetal medicine specialists will work to keep your baby there as long as possible.

A fetal echocardiogram (also called an echo for short) is a test that is similar to a routine pregnancy ultrasound. It uses sound waves to create a picture of an unborn baby’s heart to show its structure and how well it’s working.

A fetal echo usually is performed during the second or third trimester. It will look at the development of the baby’s heart walls and valves, blood vessels leading to and from the heart, and the heart’s pumping strength. The test can show:

  • Blood flow through the heart
  • Heart rhythm
  • Structures in the baby’s heart

Reasons to Have a Fetal Echocardiogram

  • Family history of certain heart conditions
  • Mother’s medical condition that could affect the baby’s heart
  • Genetic disorder in the developing baby
  • Abnormality seen on a routine pregnancy ultrasound
  • A routine pregnancy ultrasound couldn’t get a good view of the baby’s heart

What to Expect at Your Fetal Echocardiogram

We know you likely will be worried or anxious about this test. Our team is here to reassure you and answer any questions you have. You are welcome to bring an adult support person with you to the test. You can expect to be at the office for one to two hours.

You should be able to eat and drink normally before the test. You will not need to have a full bladder. Do not use lotions, creams or powders on your belly on the day of the fetal echocardiogram.

A fetal echo is done in a darkened room while you are lying down. It is similar to a routine ultrasound during pregnancy. The sonographer will put gel on your belly to help sound waves travel to the baby’s heart and back. The sonographer will slide the transducer across your belly to get pictures of the heart from different angles.

A fetal echo can take 30 minutes to two hours to get the pictures needed to see all the parts of the heart. Sometimes, the position of the baby can make it hard to see the heart, and the test will take longer.

Results can be available very quickly, and sometimes a follow-up fetal echo is necessary.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, works with providers at several  locations across Kentucky to evaluate fetal echocardiograms remotely. At these tele-echo sites, a trained sonographer will collect the images. With secure telemedicine links, images are sent to Norton Children’s Hospital, where a fetal cardiologist can evaluate the test results.

Norton Children’s offers fetal echos at eightlocations in Louisville, Central and Western Kentucky.

Fetal Echocardiogram Benefits

Research studies show that when a heart issue is discovered during pregnancy, the baby has a better outcome after birth. It gives pediatric cardiologists time to collaborate with other specialists and plan the best treatment approach. In addition, the family can prepare well in advance of the baby’s birth.

Depending on the severity of the heart condition, the baby may be able to be delivered at your home hospital with your regular obstetrician,and have their newborn care completely at your home hospital, with the option to transport to Norton Children’s Hospital after birth for advanced heart care only if needed.  Outpatient cardiology follow up visits, if needed, can be performed in or near your local community..

For babies with more complex heart conditions, delivery will be planned at Norton Hospital,which is connected to Norton Children’s Hospital next door.  This allows newborn babies to be directly admitted to the NICU at Norton Children’s Hospital immediately after birth. .

Norton Children’s Heart Institute takes three approaches to identifying heart conditions in unborn babies:

  • Education and training. We work with obstetric providers and sonographers to help identify possible heart defects sooner. Sonographers and obstetricians get training in their offices and can spend time in the echocardiography lab at Norton Children’s Hospital.
  • Comprehensive testing in Louisville. Fetal echocardiograms are available in downtown Louisville at Norton Children’s Heart Institute and at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital in East Louisville. Our state-of-the-art equipment allows us to see more patients in a timely manner.
  • Outreach across the region. Norton Children’s Heart Institute providers work with providers in communities across Kentucky to offer fetal echocardiograms closer to patients’ homes.

Reviewed by Lucinda T. Wright, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist with Norton Children’s Heart Institute.

Why Choose Norton Children’s Heart Institute

  • Norton Children’s Hospital has been a pioneer in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, performing Kentucky’s first pediatric heart transplant in 1986 and becoming the second site in the United States to perform an infant heart transplant.
  • The American Board of Thoracic Surgery has certified our cardiothoracic surgeons in congenital heart surgery.
  • The Adult Congenital Heart Association has accredited Norton Children’s Heart Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program as the only comprehensive care center in Kentucky and Indiana treating adults born with a heart defect.
  • More than 17,000 children a year visit Norton Children’s Heart Institute for advanced heart care.
  • Norton Children’s Heart Institute has offices across Kentucky and Southern Indiana to bring quality pediatric heart care closer to home.
  • The Jennifer Lawrence Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) at Norton Children’s Hospital is the largest dedicated CICU in Kentucky, equipped with 17 private rooms and the newest technology available for heart care.

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