I love getting ultrasounds when I'm pregnant — you actually get to see what it is that you're working so hard to grow. Pregnancy is just such an alien, abstract thing with all of these symptoms and all of this strange stuff going on in your body, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the oddity of it all. Ultrasound images help to concretize those sensations in your mind. I mean really, t's a singular feeling to perceive your baby moving from within and see the corresponding movements on-screen. But, what do babies feel during an ultrasound? Is it an annoying intrusion? Do they have any idea what's going on?
There's actually a lot of research and many theories that have evolved in the arena of what fetuses perceive, their awareness, and even their pain while they reside in the womb. Scientists have also studied how they understand taste, hunger, light, and sound over the course of their gestation. As early as 1996, researchers in Science Development determined that not only were babies in-utero reactive to external stimuli, as measured by ultrasound and fetal heart rate, but that genetically male fetuses were more likely to be affected by stimuli and more active than genetically female fetuses. Light, sound, poking, and prodding — like that which occurs during an ultrasound — have all been found to provoke a reaction from your little one.
When I had my first ultrasound with my oldest, he was highly uncooperative. Sure, he gave everyone a great flash of his bits — letting us know he was in possession of a penis — but as for his desire to let the tech and radiologist get a good look at his heart, he was unconvinced that was in his best interests. He danced away from that camera like they were trying to force him to clean the bathrooms or some other unsavory task. The more they shoved at my abdomen with the wand, the more uncooperative he became. Eventually, at the end of a very long session, he took to curling himself up in a tiny ball, preventing a good picture of anything but his little tibias and fibulas. He all but hung a sign on my belly button reading, "Busy. Come back later."
Wanting to understand this phenomenon more fully, and curious as to whether this was abnormal or mostly common for babies in the uterus, I spoke with ultrasound technician Anne-Marie Vongole of New Jersey. She tells Romper that in her career as an ultrasound tech, there have been many cases where it seems as though the baby is almost running away from the ultrasound wand as I described with my son, and that this is pretty common.
"From what I see, they definitely feel the deeper motions with the ultrasound," Vongole says. "You can see them swim around it, and even sometimes what looks like them actively avoiding the pressure. Their heart rate spikes a tiny bit, but nothing to indicate pain or discomfort." She says she imagines it to be a little like getting really comfortable under your duvet at night, only to have your partner come into bed and mess with your perfectly arranged nest of cotton and sateen. You're not in pain, but you kind of wish you slept in separate beds like Lucy and Ricky, and you're not really keen to chat about your day right at that moment.
"I think they're more surprised than anything, and they react to it. If you poke your belly when you're far enough along, you can get your baby to move. This is basically the same thing." So, what do babies feel during an ultrasound? Likely surprised annoyance and the desire to go back to sleep. Sort of like me in the middle of the night when my husband rolls over to go to the bathroom. Seriously, go before bed.