Doctors generally use ultrasound to check the size, location, number or age of fetuses in the womb, and look for some types of birth defects and fetal movement, breathing and heartbeat, but physicians usually provide less- sophisticated snapshots of the fetus. The commercial companies add music and graphics to the shots of the fetus swimming in utero. And while ultrasound exams in doctors' offices usually take a very short time, the FDA says ''entertainment video" companies might take as long as an hour.
"From a medical standpoint, ultrasound generally is considered safe and is properly used when medical information on a pregnancy is needed. But it cannot be regarded as completely innocuous," said FDA spokeswoman Sharon Snider.
Laboratory studies have shown ultrasound can produce physical effects in tissue such as a rise in temperature and jarring vibrations, said Snider. ''Although there's no evidence that this can harm the fetus, public health experts agree that casual exposure to ultrasound, especially during pregnancy, should be avoided. Viewed in this light, exposing the fetus to ultrasound when no medical benefit is expected cannot be justified."
These services have cropped up in malls, homes and through mail-order companies in Texas, New York, California and in the Midwest.