The 20 week scan: so much more than a gender reveal

By Tiny Tickers Fundraising and Comms Officer, Aimee Foster.

The 20 week anomaly scan is one of the pinnacle moments of any pregnancy. In the majority of cases, when the baby is healthy, it is the second and final time you’ll see your baby on screen before you meet face-to-face. Yes, it’s an opportunity to discover your baby’s gender and receive a series of blurry pictures. But that’s not the reason the NHS offer the scan to all pregnant women. Believe me, there’s so much more to it than that.

Think 20 Think HEART

The 20 week scan is the most detailed medical examination your baby will have during pregnancy. Each of your baby’s tiny organs will be checked in turn to ensure they are developing properly. The odds are everything will be fine and the shadowy, hazy picture on screen will reveal a healthy baby. But what happens if this isn’t the case? Some excited parents-to-be leave the scan room with more than a picture. I know how they feel because I was one of them.

A natural worrier, during my first pregnancy in 2009, I obsessed over every minute detail. The complicated and delicate process of growing a baby overwhelmed me and I fretted over every act and omission I had made. I hadn’t taken folic acid pre-conception. I had a few boozy evenings before I even knew I was pregnant. I’d had too many hot baths…the list of worries was endless.

The 20 week scan loomed before me and I was terrified.
Perched on a brown plastic chair outside the scan room, I was physically shaking. In my head I’d been through all the worst case scenarios. I’d lost my baby over and over again.

Every time the sonographer checked off a tiny organ or body part as healthy, the iron fist clenching my stomach loosened its grip slightly. After the scan was complete, I relaxed a little, although my fears didn’t completely dissolve until my daughter arrived 20 weeks later. Bonny and healthy, she was living proof that there had been no reason to worry.

The second time round, in 2012, I was far more relaxed about the whole process. My body had done it before, it knew the deal.

On the day of the anomaly scan I felt relaxed and perfectly able to hold a paper cup of coffee without spilling its contents everywhere. Seconds before the sonographer called us in, I said to my husband, ‘I can’t believe I was so scared last time. This time, I’m not worried at all’.

The irony of those words stays with me every single day.

This scan progressed much the same as my first. The crucial difference occurred when the sonographer reached the baby’s heart. She was silent for too long. There were too many clicks of buttons and too much eye narrowing. The air in the room went cold.

‘There’s something wrong with your baby’s heart’.

I stared at the sonographer blankly, unable to speak or comprehend her words.

‘Your baby’s heart looks asymmetrical,’ she explained. ‘I need to get the doctor.’

After another deafeningly silent examination, the doctor said she thought she knew what was wrong with our baby’s heart, but she didn’t want to tell us the exact diagnosis until we had seen a fetal cardiologist. She explained that this was to prevent us from jumping on Google when we got home, which of course, was exactly what we did.

We left the scan room with a piece of paper advising us on what to do when your baby is diagnosed with an anomaly and a million unanswered questions, scattered between burgeoning hopes that this was all a big mistake.

As we drove home, I turned on my phone to find numerous messages from friends and family asking about the gender of the baby. Forgetting my new burden for a second, I managed a small smile. I had almost forgotten we were having another girl. I couldn’t even begin to know how to answer those texts and messages. The gender of our baby, which had seemed so crucial a few hours earlier, was now utterly insignificant.

Before our baby’s delivery, we came to know the scan process intimately. To this day, the skill with which our consultant was able to examine our baby, Grace’s, tiny heart takes my breath away. To me it looked like a mass of greys and blacks, all running into each other like a monochrome watercolour painting. But with the expertise of our consultant we were able to understand Grace’s heart condition and plan and prepare for her birth.

To the sonographer who first spotted Grace’s heart defect, I will always owe my immense gratitude. The alternative scenario, had we continued in the dark without any knowledge of what was really going on inside, plays out in my head often. The sonographer’s eagle eye not only gave us 12 weeks to prepare but also instant access to the best medical care available. In circumstances such as these that’s really all you want – to know they are receiving the best treatment possible, with no regrets about what could have been if only you’d known.

Heart defects are the most common of all birth defects, affecting one in 125 babies. Early diagnosis gives babies a better chance of survival and long term quality of life. Detection during pregnancy means the right medical experts can be on hand at birth, treatment can begin as soon as possible and parents can start getting the support they need – from the start. This is the purpose of the 20 week scan and something all parents-to-be need to be aware of.

If you’re about to have your 20 week scan, the chances are everything will be fine and you’ll leave the scan room in a cloud of joy. But while you look forward to finding out the gender and taking home a picture to frame, please also make sure you are aware of the importance of this medical examination.

Order our free Think 20 kit, which tells you everything you need to about how to protect your tiny ticker, and find out more about our Think 20 campaign here.