Ultrasound vs. Sonogram: Is There a Difference?

The answer is simpler than you think.

Most pregnant women feel a thrill of excitement when they hear the words, “Come in for a sonogram.”

Friends of mine have planned elaborate gender reveal parties, framed 3-D printouts of their unborn babies’ faces, and even brought extended family members into the technician’s tiny rooms to see the first glimpse of the new family member.

But not all of us feel that thrill of excitement.

Some of us feel fear, confusion, and that dread that comes with not knowing.

Is it the wand one or the belly one? Do I have to get the picture with the smooshed baby face? My doctor says I need an ultrasound; is that the same thing? Why are my friends getting so many pictures of their baby and my doctor doesn’t think we need to “overdo it”?

And if you’ve ever been in the emergency room for pregnancy complications, hearing a doctor or intern suggest, “Let’s head upstairs for the transvaginal ultrasound” is about as scary as it can get.

But the teacher in me wants to make one thing clear: it’s okay to ask questions.

Don’t be like my husband and I were, huddled in a room while I was half-naked and slathered in lubricant, Googling the difference between an ultrasound and a sonogram.

The difference is actually much simpler than you’re thinking, and knowing the terms makes this process so much less scary than the other terms you’ll hear during pregnancy.

The Ultrasound

The 8th edition of Advanced Placement Biology textbook by Neil A. Campbell defines ultrasound as a technique, one in which “sound waves are used to produce an image of the fetus by a simple noninvasive procedure” (280).

I’m lucky to work in a school and have access to these things. I am not lucky that the sheer amount of words I just read made my eyes tear up. Simply:

  • Ultrasounds present no known risks to mother or fetus; in doctor speak, an ultrasound is noninvasive
  • Ultrasounds do not use radiation
  • High-frequency sound waves are sent into the body and technicians records how quickly those sound waves bounce back

When we explain an ultrasound to students, we use the analogy of dolphin-speak. Dolphins use sonar to navigate the ocean.

They send out noise that is returned to them in the form of an echo, which tells them the shape, size, and location of an object in question.

Dolphins use sonar to relay messages to one another and draw attention to certain questionable things.

Here’s an old SAT analogy to break this down even simpler:

dolphin :: sonar to communicate as sonographer :: ultrasound

According to the American Pregnancy Association, there are 7 different types of ultrasounds:

  1. Pelvic Ultrasound: which includes abdominal, vaginal (for women), and rectal (for men).
  2. Transabdominal: also known as “standard ultrasound”. An electrical device (called lovingly by my doctor, “the magic eye”) is used over the abdomen to generate a 2-D image.
  3. Transvaginal: the aforementioned “probe”, used during early stages of pregnancy. A “wand” is inserted into the vagina to generate images; (this “wand” or “probe” is called a transducer).
  4. 3-D Ultrasound: optional, and typically not covered by insurance. Used to create a 3-D image of your baby (not your typical black and white profile, but a full visual effect. Some doctors prefer this because a 3-D ultrasound can show certain birth defects.
  5. 4-D Ultrasound: also known as “dynamic 3-D”; optional, typically not covered by insurance, and used to create a video of your baby’s movement in the womb.
  6. Fetal Echocardiography: typically used in second trimester in weeks 18-24 to see your baby’s heart.
  7. Doppler Ultrasound: used to evaluate your baby’s blood vessels. Typically used if the mother has been diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

So, what is a sonogram?

Oh yes. The sonogram. The sonogram is the picture that the ultrasound generates. So while the terms are used interchangeably, the ultrasound is the process, and the sonogram is the end result.

The takeaway.

At each stage of your miraculous creation of life, there will be questions, from the frenzied and spur-of-the-moment to the calm and proactive.

Ask as many questions as needed; remember – this technology is so new that many of our parents didn’t even have the opportunity to utilize it.

Keep this in mind – ultrasounds are painless, quick procedures that are used simply to help sonographers (and, ultimately, your doctor), keep your baby safe.

By checking in on fetal size, due date, blood flow, organs, appendages, and facial construction, an ultrasound, and the sonogram you walk away with, are so much more than just a gender-reveal opportunity.

  1. My wife recently found out that she’s pregnant. We want to take every precaution to make sure that she and the baby are safe. I didn’t realize that ultrasounds have no known risks to the baby or mother while providing useful information, like gender. That seems like something she would definitely benefit from.

  2. It’s good to know the different between these scans. I like the connection you made between ultrasounds and dolphin speech. My wife just got pregnant with our first child, and she’ll love to read this.

  3. I like that you talk about how safe ultrasounds are and that they don’t use radiation to develop images. It makes sense that the system would develop an image with high-frequency sound waves, given the name, and wouldn’t be harmful. I’ll have to keep this in mind because remembering the names of either the ultrasound or sonogram could help explain to my wife the difference. Thanks for the post!

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