The second-trimester ultrasound, usually done between weeks 16 and 20, is an important moment for both parents. But it’s of particular importance to fathers. While the mother has a sense of connection to the child — after all, she is carrying it, experiencing sickness and fatigue, feeling her body change — that second-trimester ultrasound, when the growing form of the child can be seen clearly on the black and white, wah-wah-wah-ing feed, is a moment when the reality of becoming a father often solidifies for men.
“Seeing the baby on the screen seemed to herald an escalation of their awareness of the baby, reinforcing its reality,” wrote Jan Draper of the Royal College of Nursing Institute in the 2002 research paper ‘It was a real good show’: the ultrasound scan, fathers and the power of visual knowledge.’ “Visual knowledge, as opposed to other forms of knowledge, therefore became a primary means of knowing the baby.”
The ultrasound is one of but a few important rituals that helps pregnancy feel more “real” for men. But because of coronavirus safety protocols, most OB/GYN offices don’t allow anyone to accompany the mother for any prenatal visits. It’s hard to fit three people in many rooms with ultrasound equipment as it is, and it’s pretty much impossible for three people to stay six feet apart in those spaces. As a result, pregnant women are asked to come alone. They often cannot bring their phones in because of restrictions, which means no photos or videos to share with fathers-to-be. These pandemic safety precautions, of course, make sense. But it’s hard for men who can’t be there.
How Ultrasounds Help Dads Feel Connected
While everyone understands the reasoning for COVID restrictions, not all fathers — especially first-time dads — may realize just how important any ultrasound visit is, and particularly the second-trimester ultrasound.
“Fathers say it means a lot to them to see their baby on the screen and have an unmediated experience with the baby,” explains Tova Walsh, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies the transition to fatherhood.
Until that moment, dads have only experienced the baby via what the mother is saying and perhaps how her body is changing. Viewing the baby “feels like a direct connection and can be a really meaningful moment,” Walsh says. “They see the baby is a real person and they look for connections between the baby and themselves.” During the session, the baby kick may make them wonder, ‘Will they play soccer like I did?’ Or they might notice how the baby positions their arm under their head, just like the dad does when he sleeps.
In fact, Draper found in her 2002 paper that seeing the baby on the screen was the strongest ‘evidence’ of their baby being ‘real’ compared to seeing the pregnancy test, their partner’s expanding stomach, or feeling the baby move. Looking at each arm and leg or how the baby’s nose looks like the mother’s, helps men bond and marks the transition to fatherhood, she concluded.
“The ultrasound helps the idea of being a father sink in,” adds clinical psychologist David Moore, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound and co-author of Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood. “It helps the dad transition from focusing more on himself — or himself and his partner — to being able to care for this child and re-orient his identity around the role of fatherhood.”
The prenatal connection that forms between a father and his child is particularly important, whether it is a first or a fifth baby. In a study to be published in the Journal of Family Issues, a positive ultrasound experience enhanced this bond.
“How engaged the father is during the prenatal period predicts the quality of his bond with his child after birth,” Moore explains. A positive bond predicts lower parenting stress as well as more positive father-child interactions, he adds.
Plus, research has found that a father’s attendance during prenatal care results in more involvement and support for both the mother and baby post pregnancy and may decrease the chance of postpartum depression in the mother. And, of course, if the ultrasound goes smoothly, it reassures both parents that everything is going well and reinforces the idea that the parents are a team.
What Fathers-to-Be Can Do to Feel Close to Their Child
Now, all of this doesn’t mean that not being in-person for an ultrasound implies you can’t prepare to become a father and begin to bond with your child. It does mean, however, that men should strive to be more intentional — and creative — with how they get to “know” their soon-to-be baby.
If the doctor’s office will allow for it, ‘attend’ the appointment via a video call like FaceTime or Zoom. Although not the same as holding your partner’s hand and seeing the screen clearly, this offers some of the same benefits, says Walsh, who is currently studying this issue.
“Seeing the baby’s movement and hearing the heartbeat can be really compelling,” she says. You can also interact with your partner or ask the sonographer questions.
If the obstetrician’s office won’t allow phones in the ultrasound room, consider driving your partner to the second-trimester appointment and waiting in the car, Walsh suggests. This way she can explain what the photos show and each discovery made during the exam while the visit is fresh.
“Sharing the experience as close to real time as possible can make it feel tangible that a baby is on the way,” Walsh says. Talk about it in detail, adds Sheehan D. Fisher, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Encourage your partner to say more than ‘It went well.’
Of course, the second-trimester ultrasound isn’t the only time men can seize the opportunity to concentrate on the pregnancy, baby, and becoming father. Fathers-to-be can invest in time to think about the future, imagine what the baby will be like, and reflect on what they hope their relationship with the baby will be like, Walsh says.
As the pregnancy progresses, celebrate each key moment, such as the different trimesters and signs of the pregnancy becoming more visible, Moore suggests. “This helps with that ‘sinking in.’”