Should You Have An Early Pregnancy Scan?

Last Updated: February 16, 2024
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

By Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

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Every expecting woman encounters some very common fears and questions, and one of these is whether or not to have an early pregnancy scan. Because a first trimester scan doesn’t give us a whole lot to see, some clinicians may not be inclined to provide one as early as you want.

So should you have one? What’s the right answer? How can you know the benefits of having a first trimester or early pregnancy scan?

Well pull up your socks and readjust that bra for possibly the hundredth time today, mama! We’re going to dive in and examine it all, from how many scans during pregnancy to ultrasound cost, and all the way pregnancy ultrasound WEEK-BY-WEEK, so there’s no information left out.

As a labor and delivery nurse, I see the women who had REGRETS about what they did while pregnant ALL DAY. While an early pregnancy scan might not be the worst thing in the world to miss from a sentimental perspective, that should be your choice to decide, and not to miss because of lack of information.

I want you to have all that you need to make an informed decision sooner, rather than too late! 

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How early can you get an ultrasound?

Scans during pregnancy are pretty much inevitable, unless you are using a doula or midwife only, or you life in a third-world country. If so, ultimately, you’ll just have  to wait and see how healthy the baby is.

Which is totally OK, by the way.

We are totally fueled by our need to know these days. Us kids look back on the days when people actually had to WAIT 9 WHOLE MONTHS to find out the gender of their baby!

Like living in the dark ages, right?

Seriously, though, if you don’t or can’t do ultrasound, you will be OK. There’s a lot more waiting and hoping and trusting mother nature to get it right, but there’s also a lot of value in the nature of surprise (and truthfully most of the time things turn out FINE).

That said, if you have the ability to get ultrasounds scans throughout your pregnancy, I would absolutely recommend it. If you’re really excited about the surprise, just look away from the monitor and ask your doctor not to tell you anything, except to confirm that your baby looks healthy.

How early you can get an early scan might depend on your provider, but I would definitely defer to your provider if they have concerns about taking the time too early. Your little one is a pinprick, but what CAN be done is typically an examination of the gestational sac. 

Even THAT isn’t a silver bullet. Sometimes the doc will see one, sometimes they won’t. While it can mean ectopic or miscarriaged pregnancy, it can also mean that you are looking too soon. 

Long and short of it: WAIT until the doctor says to worry before you start worrying.

If you choose to get an early scan, go in with low expectations. A prenatal ultrasound is only as valuable as the things that are there to see. If there’s not much to see, there’s not much value.

Regardless, if you do take the chance to have an early pregnancy ultrasound, be sure to ask for pictures. This will be your little one’s first ultrasound, and even if the baby can’t be seen an obstetric ultrasound is a pretty impressive vision by itself. 

These first ultrasound scans can be a little awkward. We’ll talk a little more about it later, but let’s just say you don’t get a very good picture from outside the body. 

With that lovely little cliffhanger, let’s move on.

Early pregnancy ultrasound

There are a lot of things to consider regarding early pregnancy ultrasound. One of those things is the ultrasound price. Depending on your area or your insurance, you might not see a DIME of this cost. Without insurance? This will probably be SUPER expensive.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with your insurance services and your provider’s cost. If you don’t have a lot of coverage, you might use that as your deal-breaker when it comes to which early ultrasounds you opt to have done or opt to skip.

Regardless which way you go, an ultrasound scan is relatively painless and certain causes no lasting harm if done properly and by a qualified medical professional.

Types of scans in early pregnancy

 Because of how little there is to see this early on, (and barring doctor’s recommendation, of course), I would hold off an a 3D ultrasound until at least around 20 weeks (if at all), as this is when you’ll have a surefire shot at gender identification and (let’s be honest!) something worth taking a picture of.

Pregnancy scans are vital for later determining the little one’s developmental progress. For now, though, let’s hold off on getting too crazy with the tech. That first pregnancy scan hardly appears to be a baby ultrasound at all, so getting all 3D about it seems like a big waste of money.R

Early pregnancy scan cost 

Speaking of money, how much is a early pregnancy scan? How much IS a 3D scan? Oh, well I’m glad you asked! 

The usual cost for an in-network prenatal scan is usually anywhere up to $50 co-pay, depending on the doctor and the type of scan. For a 3D prenatal scan, you might be looking at anywhere from $50 – $300!

Shocked yet, mama? This is how much it actually costs to pay the specialist and operate the machinery. Probes are expensive and MUST be replaced once in a while. 

The 4D scan cost is equal to or more than 3D, and doesn’t really add a whole lot more value (in my opinion). Think of it as a moving GIF of the still images you got from the 3D. Some instances might be more frames per second (or even A frame per second), but all I’ve ever seen are 3 to 10 slide animations.

DON’T get me wrong here, I LOVE LOVE BABIES and I LOVE LOVE SEEING BABIES. I could watch animated GIFs of babies in utero all day every day. But I don’t think I would want to pay $300 for one when I could just scan my snapshots together and make my own GIF.

Related Reading: The BEST Pregnancy Nutrition Books

Scans in early pregnancy

It used to be that doctors only recommended or performed the scan once or twice in all of pregnancy, starting at around 20 weeks. Per an Ovid article that shared popular opinions drawn from studies of early pregnancy scans, an early baby scan can actually be really beneficial.

The studies indicate that in recent years, studies have begun to show that there are significant factors we can spot early on, at early as 7 weeks in some cases. These help predict complications or identify the possibility of a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy very early on (which is HUGE!). 

Your reasons for having an early pregnancy scan

Whether or not you seek an early ultrasound scan is 100% up to you. I’m definitely not going to tell you your reasons here. Why? Because I DON’T KNOW THEM, silly. Unless you already told me. In which case hopefully I remember.

What I can tell you is why you SHOULD have an early pregnancy scan.

  • It gives you a chance to see your doctor’s ultrasound process
  • You can document that first step in your child’s development, particularly if you keep a development/pregnancy journal (like this one here!)
  • You MAY be giving the doctor a chance to spot early complications that might be HEARTBREAKING if left for later
  • This provides you a chance to see what the ultrasound process looks like and ask questions BEFORE you miss an important opportunity later on

Couple these with:

  • If it’s FREE, why the heck NOT? or…
  • If it’s CHEAP, why the heck NOT?

If neither of those are true, ask your doctor if it’s worth it.

(In my opinion, totally worth it.)

Related Reading: Pregnancy Announcement Ideas

What can you see at an early pregnancy scan?

What can the doctor see when they use sonography during pregnancy? 

Per Merck Manuals, Ultrasound is the use of high frequency sound waves, broadcast into the body. Those sound waves bounce or “echo” off everything at different times and speeds. Kind of like a bat’s sonar. The ultrasound machine interprets these bouncing sound waves and turns them into a digital image. That’s your pregnancy scan, in a nutshell!

What the doctor can see in early pregnancy is limited. As I mentioned before, the actual baby is all but invisible to current technology without getting more invasive. These bouncing sound waves probably return a tiny little image, if that, but it’s fuzzed out by all the surrounding stuff.

And when I say “stuff”, I mean your guts. And… stuff.

So the doc has a much better chance of analyzing what’s around baby at this phase because it’s bigger than the baby his/herself. Prior to six weeks or so, that’s the placement of the embryo (whether or not it’s in the uterus, ruling out what’s called an ectopic pregnancy), it’s pole (which direction the embryo is laying), and the gestational sac (the bag of goo that nurtures the embryo until the yolk develops).

These are definitely important things, but they could probably wait till six weeks if you aren’t super jazzed about having the transvaginal probe… well, probing. Transvaginally.

As you move through the weeks (and we’ll get more specific down below), more and more details emerge and the doctor has a full scale capacity to determine viability typically between 11 and 14 weeks.

Somewhere in this stretch of time, a heartbeat will emerge. The doctor will also seek to measure a few dimensions on your little beanie baby, using the head and the stomach and other parts–this is mostly so they can estimate the due date (get your bets in before this!!).

Beyond that, an ultrasound will allow the doc to determine if you have multiple tenants

The likelihood of spotting anything even remotely close to a gender in early pregnancy scans is basically not a thing. Technically, junk is growing at about seven weeks, but growing does not mean grown. Something the size of a kidney bean probably doesn’t have much to show just yet, mama. Keep waiting!

Related Reading: Signs You Need to Call Your OBGYN

How do they do an early pregnancy scan?

Let’s just say… they get the best view from inside.

When doc rolls up his or her sleeves and lubes up the probe, you know it’s time for that baby scan. Our doctor always said “COLD AND WET” to warn me. She should have said, “CLOSE YOUR EYES AND BITE DOWN ON THIS LEATHER ROD!”

Kidding, of course. This shouldn’t be particularly painful, but it can be a bit jolting when it happens.

What am I talking about? The transvaginal probe again.

Early scans from outside the body are limited in perspective and penetration, making it harder for the doctor to give you good,  useful data. For the best view, particularly in women who carry more fatty tissue in the abdomen, a small probe is inserted vaginally to look at the baby from the inside, where there will be much less interference with the sound waves.

If you aren’t in love with this idea, lady, particularly if you have any trauma that is triggered by such a thing, be sure to communicate that with your doctor. Italics! Bold! Underline! He or she won’t get as good of results (if any) with an early pregnancy scan trans-abdominally (against the tummy), but if you aren’t comfortable with transvaginal – that’s okay.

So yeah, communicate.

How many scans during pregnancy will vary from clinic to clinic. Your doctor will be the best person to ask about this. 

As we talked about before, the raw minimum is 2, one in the first trimester to confirm viability and get a due date, and another around week 20 to makes sure all the bits and pieces are there and working, and maybe determine gender (Yay!).

Another pretty common scan is the nuchal scan (NYOO-kull), which is optional in most cases and done to check for things like downs syndrome. It comes with a free and compulsory blood test, which is used in unison with the scan data when the results are analyzed.

Barring any special preferences (and again, depending on the clinic’s preference), that’s it. At least, that’s what’s typically mandated by common medical practice.

My clinic was a private clinic, and they actually whipped out the probe (some call it a wand, which I find very magical) every time, without even asking if I wanted to get a look. It was just part of the package.

I liked that, but I wonder if I really would have known what I’d be paying if I wasn’t so familiar with the medical billing process because of my work.

So that could be a nasty surprise if you aren’t prepared for it. Again, it all comes back to communication. Ask the billing representatives in your clinic what your plan covers. If they can’t tell you, get the number of the procedure from them and call your insurance company directly.

If none of them can tell you what it’ll cost you, something has gone terribly wrong and it’s probably time to move to greener pastures, where insurance is transparent and receptionists are allowed to know things they should know.

Related Reading: Do It Yourself Pregnancy Test

When does an early pregnancy scan usually happen?

If you’ve wondered things like “when do I have my first baby scan/ultrasound” or “what’s the very best time for my first ultrasound during pregnancy”, you’re not alone. If the doctor doesn’t take the lead on this, you can be left to wonder.

Remember that doctors aren’t typically as concerned with bedside manner (there are exceptions, of course). If you don’t feel good asking them, ask your nurse. THEY ARE. Believe me, I know. 😉

Regardless, you can ask for a scan or ultrasound your very first visit if you want. There are no conclusive studies to suggest that ultrasound is bad for the baby, regardless of age. Again, it’s really just more about whether it’s worth the bang for your buck.

Early pregnancy is a huge learning experience, I’m sure you know by now. This is just one more area where you have some options, and it’s really just a question of understanding those options, mama. 

If you’re really hoping to get a baby ultrasound picture, you’re gonna need to wait at least until the 8th week (at least), and maybe more toward the 11th. 

Prenatal care workshop

What happens during an ultrasound scan?

When the probe is inserted into the vagina (or pressed down into the abdomen), it emits high frequency sound waves. Those waves strike your hard and soft tissue, and bounce (or are “reflected”) back at different speeds and intensities, depending on what they hit.

These returning waves strike the sensor in the probe, and that analog information is passed down the cord to the ultrasound machine. That machine then interprets the raw information and turns it into a digital signal that can be manipulated by the interface the sonographer uses.

You’ll notice a scroll wheel, a lot of buttons and controls, and probably a computer mouse.

It’s all pretty technical at the point of operation (which is why you want a certified technician running the hundred thousand dollar equipment, if at all possible). Suffice to say that the sonographer will use the dials and software systems to measure and document what is presented on the screen for you.

That data is recorded for further study and use throughout your pregnancy, and a copy of the scans is (usually) sent to the email address or cell phone of your choice. They also print a copy for you.

The doctor will interpret the dimensions and measurements and apply them to a formula that estimates how far along you are, which gives them the ability to further estimate your due date.

See, babies typically grow at the same rate. They’ve recorded millions and millions of these little squirts throughout the years, so the average is a pretty strong baseline.

It is still an average, though. They cannot ever guarantee the exact date of conception or birth. That’s life for you. Maybe science will get there one day.

Pregnancy ultrasound week by week

When you get an early baby scan, there are a few things you can typically expect. 

As we already talked about, the 5 week ultrasound is a bit of a craps shoot. You might be on the closer end of 6 weeks and see a little blob. You might be closer to the 4-week side of things and see not a thing.

Related Reading: 10 Ways to Rock Your Prenatal Visit

Pregnancy Ultrasound Schedule

6 week ultrasound

It’s not super typical for you to see too much on this one. It would take super sensitive equipment AND a master ultrasonographer to dial it down tight enough to give you much.

And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely those folks out there, I imagine

What you would see is something that looks like a kidney bean, measuring at about a quarter of an inch. Half of this little wormie is the baby’s head, and the other half is his/her body. Some little nubs would indicate where arms and legs will eventually be.

More often than not, what you’ll see here is a tiny circle, and maybe a line or “pole” that indicates how the zygote has attached to the uterus. That’s one of the things doc’s looking for. 

If you’re really curious if you can get a closer look, ask your provider. I would actually LOVE to hear the stories if you get a chance to zoom in!  Comment below!

7 week ultrasound

That little bean you remember from the week before? Yeah, he or she just doubled in size! Some sources say blueberry, but I have never known any two blueberries to be the same size, so I would like to ask for a re-measure with a more consistent metaphor, please.

Regardless, your baby’s growth week over week is exponential. If you’re lucky, this early prenatal scan will show what looks a bit like a little turtle. More often, you see a black blob inside a white blob inside a black blob.

Scientific, I know!

That’s your embryo (white), preparing to separate from the yolk sac (black), all of which are contained inside that gestational sac. The baby and the yolk sac should separate around here, and baby will munch on that for a few weeks.

What you SHOULD get on this round is a heartbeat. It might have been possible last week, but this week is a lot more likely. Hear that little thumper thumping! If this is your first, this is a moment to remember.

8 week ultrasound

Week 8 is usually when most doctors go for a first trimester ultrasound. This is the scan in the first trimester, in which the doctor usually confirms the gestational age of the embryo and calculates the due date

Baby looks like a little cartoon alien now, with nubby little fingers and a head that remains as big as the rest of his or her little body. The whole package is about half an inch, making raspberries the fruit of choice in our clunky ongoing metaphor.

For you, he or she will probably just look like a lumpier blob. Still pretty unlikely you’ll get a great view, but take the time to look close and give your doc a little push to ZOOM IN a little if last week didn’t pan out!

This is the point where your provider might start using trans-abdominal instead of trans-vaginal, although the picture is still going to be better from within.

9 week ultrasound 

You can officially stop calling your baby an embryo and now call it a fetus. Woo-hoo! Baby continues to develop and has reached the fruit designation of cherry! I’m guessing that’s a SWEET CHERRY, not a pie cherry or a maraschino cherry.

You’ll probably start seeing some discernible movement through here–the baby’s muscles are developing, so twitches or even deliberate movements become possible. The heartbeat should be even stronger and CRAZY FAST, almost DOUBLE that of an adult.

From a visibility perspective, you might get a nice profile or some lucky limb shots at this gestational age. Baby’s continuing to turn into something that is ROUGHLY human in shape. 

10 week ultrasound 

Week 10 brings even more definition to arms and legs. Baby’s neck may start to become visible from here and out. Facial features, even the buds for some teeth and the beginnings of some bone. 

Of course, we’ve got a strawberry now. Don’t mind that they range in size from itty-bitty to almost as big as a mandarin orange. No metaphor is perfect, I know. This one’s just SILLY.

11 week ultrasound 

It’s official. You’ve got an ALIEN inside of you. His or her head should be pretty clearly formed now, and the nose is defining from the otherwise lump of featurelessness

Yes I made that word up. 

Baby’s arms and legs are probably going and going all the time, now. You still probably won’t feel anything in terms of kicking, but that’s not for lack of trying on your little fetus’s part.

Pay close attention to his or her limbs, though. It’s incredible to watch that baby responding to those minor shifts and changes. Sometimes your doctor can provoke the littles into squirming and moving so you can get a better view. 

12 week ultrasound

Baby just hit a crazy growth spurt and should be about 2-3 inches long now. I don’t know what fruit that is, but it’s gotta be a crazy one. Crazyfruit

If you get lucky with your view, you can see that the baby’s face is pretty much fully formed now. If you have the chance to zoom in, you’ll see that he or she basically looks like a little human, although one with a gargantuan head.

You might notice hiccups, which may only be visible on the early pregnancy scans or might actually feel like a bit of a twitch deep down. That was the first movement I ever felt from mine.

Week 12 is where your chance of miscarriage drop pretty significantly. A lot of couples plan their pregnancy announcements around here because the risk of miscarriage is now CRAZY LOW.

Congrats, mama!

13 week ultrasound 

Baby’s body should be adding significant calcium to the bones, and from this point you will start seeing him or her flesh out significantly. Everything’s built and working inside now, so it’s all about getting bigger and stronger.

This is about as early as you can usually expect to get a glance at gender. One of my friends and associates has a father-in-law that used to be an ultrasonographer, and he nailed it on the first try and even guessed what they were planning on naming her!

Clue: look for a hamburger or a hotdog. It sounds silly, but it’s totally true. A vagina looks like three parallel lines. A penis (obviously) looks like a little sausage.

14 week ultrasound 

Baby has a full body of lush, fine hair developing this week.

Wait, what? 

Yes, I said hair. It’s called lanugo and it’s a protective layer of hair that keeps the skin healthy in utero. It all drops off within a couple of weeks prior to birth. Luckily.

This is the week that your baby’s gender development will be biologically complete, so it’s really just a matter of when the little one decides to show off the parts. 

15 week ultrasound 

Week 15, the last that we’ll cover in our early pregnancy scans (since anything else is just a PREGNANCY SCAN) heralds some interesting changes.

The bones are also transitioning from cartilage to bone through the absorption of calcium.  

Best of all, baby has discovered the use of his or her facial muscles, and will likely be pulling ridiculous faces from now until he or she is 14 or so (when he or she becomes too cool to be properly goofy). If you’re patient enough, you might even catch a smile!

Usually week 16 is when you can expect to see the physical gender of the little one. Keep an eye out for that hamburger or hotdog, though, because if you get a lucky view there should be enough there to spot if your provider is good with the rollerball!

Why early pregnancy scans can be inconclusive about miscarriage

One solid fear that we’re always on the lookout for in baby ultrasound is the potential for miscarriage.

I don’t probably have to tell you why. This is a tragic and heartbreaking moment, to find out that what was a viable embryo has ceased to carry all that potential into the future.

It HURTS. You don’t have to go through it to know. And if it comes to that, mama, you are totally not alone. I’m here to cry with you, and I know I’m not the only one.

Spotting miscarriage can be tricky with an early pregnancy scan. As you can probably guess, those first few weeks when you’re only seeing the gestational sac make it entirely possible that you have an empty sac or a non-viable passenger. It can be REALLY scary when the doctor can’t find a heartbeat, but it does happen with normal pregnancies, even ones that carry to full term.

The important thing to remember is that the science isn’t and never will be perfect.

If that’s you, sitting there on the table as your doc fishes and pokes and jiggles, only to find no answering thrump-thrump, take heart and take care. Don’t rush to judgment. Let the doctor do the assuming and trust to their objectivity.

If they schedule a follow-up, take it in stride. Continue to act pregnant and let yourself just be in the moment. If you let the fear of the worst case slow you down, you can often increase the chances of doing irreparable damage to the little one. Stress can be JUST AS DESTRUCTIVE as a fifth of whiskey in some cases.

Early pregnancy scan results

Getting an early pregnancy scan (or 15) can be a great experience and will allow you to stay much more connected to that little person growing inside you. The kind of pregnancy scan results you can expect are definitely more quality than quantity.

The important scans are already structured into the regime, with the anatomy scan being the most exciting of the lot. That’ll happen around week 19 or 20.

Despite less value in these early pregnancy scans, I’m sure you can imagine how much better it is to stay active in the ultrasound than to wait and see your little one only 2 or 3 times before birthday.

Alternatively, keeping to the pregnancy ultrasound schedule defined by your provider will certainly CUT COST, which is a must if you are operating on little or no insurance. Be sure to do the right thing by your heart AND your wallet, and choose the option that fits best with your life circumstance.

Hopefully the information provided here will help you dial into which weeks you can keep and lose if you have to split the decision. If you absolutely must keep it to a minimum, here are the weeks I would absolutely NOT MISS if you want the best early pregnancy scan results:

  • Week 8 (typically mandated by your health care provider) — First heartbeat, a good shot at viability of the embryo, and a first look at that little sac of baby stuff! This week is a must if you want to start in with hope in your heart! Your doc will rule out ectopic pregnancy, which can be RIFE with complications if they don’t know about it, not to mention heartbreaking if you’ve been trying hard
  • Week 12 — It has arms and legs!? Turns out you’re actually GROWING A PERSON! Bonus points if you catch your littles with hiccups
  • Week 15 — A solid shot at early gender identification, not to mention FIRST FACIAL EXPRESSIONS! #geekingouthere

After week 15, you’ll definitely still want to sprinkle some additional pregnancy scans in, so talk to your doctor about the best times to get an extra lookie. 

I have every confidence that you’ll do the right thing for yourself and your baby, and I hope you know I’m rooting you on throughout this whole pregnancy. It can be fun to get an early pregnancy scan, and it even helps the doctor understand your needs and spot early complications! Use this method to stay connected to your little one and enjoy that journey, lady!

Happy baby-growing, mama! ?

Related Reading: Constipation During Pregnancy

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Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

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