MOBILE, Ala. — Laina McDonald guided an ultrasound wand along Amanda Lund’s pregnant belly last Saturday as a dozen family members stared up at a 70-inch flat panel screen nearby. A sepia-toned image of her baby boy emerged larger than life as he splayed tiny fingers across his face. Her husband beamed. Someone else squealed.
“I see his hand,” Amanda’s sister shouted. “You can see his little nose.” A smart phone immediately went up to record the moment.
First-time parents Amanda and Marcus Lund invited their own parents, siblings, plus a young niece and nephew to a new local business, Sneak-A-Peak Prenatal Imaging of Mobile, last weekend to share the 4D ultrasound experience. For almost an hour, the family sat on a long sectional and another sofa to watch the baby boy they will name Raylan wiggle and squirm, defiantly keeping his hands and forearms across much of his face.
“We thought it would be neat to be able to see the baby’s face before he is born,” said Marcus Lund. “This was a good way to let everyone see the baby. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t do that.”
The Sneak-A-Peek business model, which is part of the keepsake or elective ultrasound industry, has moved three- and four-dimensional fetal ultrasounds out of the doctor’s office and into well-appointed living-room like settings where there’s typically more space for larger groups to see how a baby looks in real-time as it moves about in its mother’s uterus.
McDonald, a medical sonographer who has performed ultrasounds for more than three years, opened the business in January of 2014 in west Mobile after discovering the closest similar companies were in Pensacola and New Orleans. Besides allowing large groups to come to the business, McDonald will bring a portable ultrasound machine to a client’s home for events such as baby showers where a baby’s gender is revealed.
“We can do the 4D at any facility,” McDonald said. “I have a lot of women who call me and say my OBGYN doesn’t allow children or the space is smaller.”
McDonald, who moved to the Mobile area from Louisiana after getting married, accompanied her sister-in-law and other family members to a local doctor’s office to see her expectant relative have an ultrasound more than a year ago.
“I had to stand in the hall and peak in the door,” McDonald said, “because there wasn’t enough room for me.”
That’s when she asked her sister-in-law if there were any businesses in the Mobile area that allowed expectant moms to bring in larger groups to see 3D and 4D images of their unborn children. When she found out there aren’t any, McDonald talked to her husband and made a plan. They began scouting locations and working on a business model to offer expectant moms elective ultrasound options in coastal Alabama.
Ultrasounds, which have become a routine way for women’s health providers to check the growth of unborn babies and to screen for a variety of conditions, use sound waves to look inside the body. The technology is similar to radar used on a ship. A probe placed on the body emits sound waves into the body, “listening” for return echoes to generate images. Where a 3D image is exactly what it says, three-dimensional, a 4D image adds the fourth element of movement to the ultrasound.
Women seeking a prenatal ultrasound at Sneak-A-Peek must already be receiving treatment with a healthcare provider for prenatal care and have already undergone a medical, diagnostic ultrasound ordered by their provider to confirm the due date, to screen for fetal anomalies and to look for any other pregnancy related issues. The imaging provided by Sneak-A-Peek, McDonald said, is considered an elective procedure and can’t be used in place of a diagnostic ultrasound.
McDonald asks clients to bring a medical ultrasound photo for proof of medical care to their appointment and sign a waiver. For everyone’s protection, she said, she doesn’t perform the elective ultrasound unless she has proof the expectant mom is being currently treated by a qualified health professional.
Because McDonald performs elective ultrasounds, health insurance companies don’t cover the cost, she said. Prices at Sneek-A-Peek range from $75 for a two-dimensional image to reveal a baby’s gender at 16 weeks or later in the pregnancy, to as much as $315 for a package that includes a compact disc and DVD, plus other keepsakes. Her website, www.sneak-a-peek4d.com/provides a complete list of prices and services available.
What makes her business different from the typical experience at a doctor’s office, she said, is that children are always welcome, and the theater where the ultrasounds are provided can accommodate as many as 18 people. Besides the 70-inch screen, another 42-inch screen is positioned over the bed where the mother lies for the ultrasound “so she’s not turning her head the whole time to watch the baby,” McDonald said.
McDonald also makes allowances for babies who won’t show their faces during the ultrasound sessions. She schedules an hour for each client and their guests so that the mom will have time to stand up and walk around if necessary and have something to drink or eat, to help possibly change the baby’s position enough to get a better look.
The Lund family needed the whole hour last week. Expectant mom Amanda got up twice during the session to walk around, sip cold water, have a muffin and generally try to get her little one to move his hands and arms away from his face.
“OK, intermission is over,” Barry Lund joked after his daughter-in-law lied back down for her third attempt to see little Raylan’s face.“There he is,” his maternal grandmother boomed, grinning.
For one brief moment the baby boy still inside his mother shifted his fists long enough to reveal a glimpse of his eyes, forehead and tiny nose.
It’s exactly that moment, McDonald said, when parents and families get a peek of their unborn children that makes her job amazing. “The idea that when a child is 18 years old,” she said, “that they can see what they looked like inside the womb, I think that’s incredible.”