Entertainment ultrasounds, in which spa-like clinics offer 3D photos and videos of what's going on in the womb, are marketed as a way to bond with baby before it is born

However, health professionals in Canada have warned against the use of these "keepsake" ultrasound services ever since they started to become popular about 10 years ago. The clinics that offer these services are not currently regulated or approved by health regulatory bodies in Canada.

These so-called entertainment ultrasounds are much like regular fetal ultrasounds but instead of being used to tell the size and health of a fetus, they are used solely to view the baby and take photos and videos. Many clinics offer spa-like atmospheres and image packages are sold as baby shower gifts.

"There are probably more rules about nail salons than there are about these things," says Ray Foley, executive director for the Ontario Association of Radiologists.

"I wouldn't send my wife there, I wouldn't send any woman I know there. Why would you want to go there if you think that even if there is an extremely small risk to your unborn child that you obviously want to have born happy and healthy?"

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There are also concerns that some of these businesses will determine the gender of the fetus earlier than some doctors in Canada, which could be facilitating the practice of gender specific abortions in Canada. Many are concerned that gender specific abortions, common in countries such as India and China, are causing growing gender imbalances in some communities in Canada.

In Canada, diagnostic ultrasounds are only performed by the referral of a licensed health provider and are considered a routine test during most pregnancies to monitor the development of the fetus. They can also be useful in detecting some birth defects.

Still, according to Health Canada, there is "suggestive evidence" that ultrasounds can have a biological effect on the fetus. For that reason, the regulator suggests that, unless an ultrasound has been recommended by a doctor, nobody should get one.

"Health Canada recommends that diagnostic fetal ultrasounds should be done only when the expected medical benefits outweigh any foreseeable risk," the agency wrote in 2003.

Positive bonding

Tina Ureten, president and founder of UC Baby, Canada's largest and oldest entertainment ultrasound business, disagrees with the warnings.

Ureten says the "bonding" experience offered by her services makes them worthwhile. And the growth of her company, she says, is evidence that parents want what she is offering.

"I see a huge impact on the parents everyday, every time I scan the moms, they see the pictures and they say, 'Oh there's the real baby inside me.' Until they see those pictures, they can't believe."

UC Baby, which has nearly 30 locations across the country, says that there is no difference between the service they provide and the diagnostic ultrasounds routinely performed on women during pregnancy.

Ureten says the potential health risks have been overstated.  

"Ultrasound is in usage since the 1950s and there is no scientifically proven harm to the baby.

"If there would be a concern, we won't do ultrasound in the early stage when the organs are forming. And my service is offered after 20 weeks of pregnancy. At that stage the baby is fully formed."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers the same warning as Health Canada, saying that long-term effects of ultrasound are unknown and that entertainment ultrasound could put both mother and baby at an unnecessary risk.

In 2009, Connecticut banned keepsake ultrasound clinics, prohibiting fetal ultrasound from being performed unless ordered for a medical purpose.

"We don't go take pictures of peoples' legs or their arms or their chest or their whatever else or their head for the purpose of putting it in a family album," says Foley. "Parents who do that, quite frankly, are reckless and ill-informed."

With files from Timothy Sawa