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Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

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Obstetric ultrasound was first introduced in the late 1950s. It is now widely used and has become a useful tool in monitoring and diagnosis. Ultrasound scans use sound waves which are considered safe for mother and baby.

The first ultrasound scan is usually performed between 10-13 weeks[1]. The purpose is to:

  • Diagnose pregnancy.
  • Accurately determine gestational age[2]. This is essential for intervention of post-maturity, and for accurate serum screening for Down's syndrome.
  • Determine viability - to confirm the presence of a heartbeat and exclude ectopic pregnancy and hydatidiform mole.
  • Determine fetal number and, in multiple pregnancies, the chorionicity/amnionicity[3].
  • Detect gross fetal abnormalities.


  • Measurement of crown-rump length accurately measures gestational age if performed before 13 weeks. After 13 weeks, the fetus becomes increasingly flexed so results are inaccurate. Alternatives that can be used after this include bi-parietal diameter, and/or head circumference, or femur length.
  • it is usually performed abdominally, although occasionally a vaginal scan is necessary.
  • Nuchal translucency scans for risk of Down's syndrome are best performed between 10-14 weeks[4].

This scan is offered to pregnant women ideally between 18-20 weeks of gestation[5]. This scan can provide dating information and diagnosis of multiple pregnancy, in units where no booking scan is performed.

The main purpose is:

  • To reassure the mother that her baby appears to have no gross structural abnormalities:
    • 50% of significant abnormalities will be detected by the 20-week screening scan - see below.
    • To provide the parents with options - eg, termination, preparation, and appropriate care throughout the rest of the pregnancy and delivery.
  • To determine placental morphology and localisation[6]:
    • Where the placenta extends within 20mm of the internal cervical os, another scan at 32 weeks should be offered to see if this is persisting.
    • Transvaginal scanning is preferred over transabdominal for this indication.
  • To confirm that fetal growth is appropriate.


  • Assess growth by the measurement methods below:
    • Bi-parietal diameter (most accurate for dating up to 20 weeks).
    • Head circumference.
    • Femur length.
    • Abdominal circumference.
  • Look at the head shape and internal structures:
    • Cavum septum pellucidum.
    • Cerebellum.
    • Ventricular size at atrium (<10 mm).
  • Minimum standards:
    • Spine: longitudinal and transverse.
    • Abdominal shape and content at the level of the stomach.
    • Abdominal shape and content at the level of the kidneys and umbilicus.
    • Renal pelvis (<5 mm AP measurement).
    • Longitudinal axis - abdominal-thoracic appearance (diaphragm/bladder).
    • Thorax at level of four-chamber cardiac view.
    • Aortic arch.
    • Arms - three bones and hand (not counting the fingers).
    • Legs - three bones and orientation of feet (not counting the toes).
  • Optimal standards:
    • Cardiac outflow tracts.
    • Face, nose and lips; 15% of women may have to return for further checks.

Aneuploidy scans are not routinely performed, as many normal pregnancies may have some of these features - ie there is a high false-positive rate. Pregnancies affected by aneuploidy (abnormal chromosome number) will have sonographic markers. However, 50-80% of affected cases will already be identified by triple test, maternal age and nuchal translucency measurements.

Indications for a 'marker' scan include:

Ultrasound checklist for screening for aneuploidy
Common sonographic 'markers' for aneuploidyOther risk factors
Choroid plexus cystMaternal age
Ventriculomegaly (>10 mm at the atrium)Serum screening results
Echogenic bowel (equivalent to bone density)Nuchal translucency (10- to 14-week scan)
Head shape 
Nuchal pad (>5 mm at 20 weeks) 
Cysterna magna 
Cleft lip 
Echogenic foci in heart 
Dilated renal pelvis (>5 mm AP) 
Short femur/humerus 
Sandal gap 
Clenched hand 
Two-vessel cord 

In the UK these are set by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Radiologists to assure the quality of service provision. They include providing clear, written advice that includes detection rates for defined, common conditions. A trained counsellor in the area of diagnosis and screening should be available, as should a quiet room for breaking bad news about the baby. It should be possible to discuss the findings with an obstetrician within 24 hours or soon after detection of the anomaly.

Based on RCOG screening strategy and using the standard 20-week scan checklist, scanning should detect[1]:

  • Anencephaly - 98%.
  • Open spina bifida - 90%.
  • Major cardiac anomalies (hypoplastic ventricle) - 50%.
  • Diaphragmatic hernia - 60%.
  • Gastroschisis - 98%.
  • Exomphalos - 80%.
  • Major renal tract problems (renal agenesis) - 84%.
  • Edwards' syndrome or Patau's syndrome - 95%.

Fetal presentation and cervical length:

  • Suspected fetal malpresentation (eg, breech) should be confirmed by an ultrasound examination after 36 weeks[7].
  • Cervical length measured by transvaginal ultrasonography in asymptomatic high-risk women predicts spontaneous preterm birth at less than 35 weeks of gestation[8].

Doppler ultrasound uses high-intensity sound waves to detect the blood circulation in the baby, uterus and placenta.

  • The application has extended from the umbilical cord to fetal vessels (aorta, cerebral and renal arteries) as well as maternal vessels supplying the placental intervillous space.
  • It is used for high-risk pregnancies where there is concern about baby's well-being - eg, intrauterine growth restriction, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy - and to distinguish between the normal small fetus and the 'sick' small fetus.
  • Despite its advances, Doppler ultrasound is not of use in routine antenatal screening because several studies have shown it is an unnecessary intervention and may cause possible adverse effects. Its current role in optimising management, particularly timing of delivery, remains unclear.

In high-risk populations uterine artery Doppler at 20-24 weeks of pregnancy has a moderate predictive value for a severely small for gestational age (SGA) neonate[9]. If a woman has an abnormal uterine artery Doppler at 20-24 weeks of pregnancy which subsequently normalises there is still an increased risk of an SGA neonate. Repeating uterine artery Doppler is therefore of limited value.

Women with an abnormal uterine artery Doppler at 20-24 weeks should be referred for serial ultrasound measurement of fetal size and assessment of well-being with umbilical artery Doppler, commencing at 26-28 weeks of pregnancy. Additional information on fetal well-being is assessed by measuring the depth of the biggest liquor pool.

Women with a normal uterine artery Doppler do not require serial measurement of fetal size and serial assessment of well-being with umbilical artery Doppler unless they develop specific pregnancy complications - for example, antepartum haemorrhage or hypertension. However, they should be offered a scan for fetal size and umbilical artery Doppler during the third trimester.

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Further reading and references

  1. Antenatal care - uncomplicated pregnancy; NICE CKS, July 2016 (UK access only)

  2. Butt K, Lim K; Determination of gestational age by ultrasound. J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2014 Feb36(2):171-83.

  3. Multiple pregnancy: antenatal care for twin and triplet pregnancies; NICE Clinical Guideline (September 2011)

  4. Chitty LS, Kagan KO, Molina FS, et al; Fetal nuchal translucency scan and early prenatal diagnosis of chromosomal abnormalities by rapid aneuploidy screening: observational study. BMJ. 2006 Feb 25332(7539):452-5. Epub 2006 Feb 13.

  5. Antenatal care for uncomplicated pregnancies; NICE Clinical Guideline (March 2008 - updated February 2019)

  6. Placenta Praevia and Placenta Accreta: Diagnosis and Management; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (September 2018)

  7. Management of Breech Presentation; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Mar 2017)

  8. Alfirevic Z, Stampalija T, Medley N; Cervical stitch (cerclage) for preventing preterm birth in singleton pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Jun 66:CD008991. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008991.pub3.

  9. The Investigation and Management of the Small-for-Gestational-Age Fetus; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Green-top guideline (updated January 2014)