How early can you have a pregnancy scan?

By Maria Birch

February 22, 2022

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If you’ve had a positive pregnancy test, you might be wondering: “how early can you have a pregnancy scan?”

My name is Maria. I’m an Obstetric Sonographer and run a private clinic called Sneak-A-Peek Ultrasound. I’m asked this question on a daily basis and the answer is not as simple as it might seem. But there is a simple answer!

What is an Early Pregnancy Scan?

If you’ve had a positive pregnancy test, the first thing you should do is contact your GP practice, tell them you’re expecting, and ask them to put you in touch with a local midwife.

You will then be invited to a “booking appointment” with a midwife, which is usually scheduled for around (or just before) you are 10 weeks pregnant. This is because you will be offered tests that must be carried out before 10 weeks.

Your next routine appointment will be for an ultrasound scan. You should have this scan between 11 and 14 weeks so you can opt-in to screening for Down’s, Edward’s, and Patau’s syndromes.

This first NHS scan is what some refer to as an early pregnancy scan. But some parents are eligible for an earlier NHS scan, and some choose to have a private early pregnancy scan.

Best Time for an Early Pregnancy Scan?

How early you can have a pregnancy scans depends on a few factors.

One of the most critical is the quality of the ultrasound machine that you have the scan on. With a relatively new, high-end machine – like the one I use at Sneak-A-Peek Ultrasound – you can have an early pregnancy scan from 6 weeks gestation.

It also depends on your circumstances, symptoms, and motivation for having an early pregnancy scan. As I mentioned, the best time for your NHS early pregnancy scan is 11-14 weeks. But what if you want a scan before then?

If you’ve experienced pain or bleeding, for example, it’s best to speak to your GP or midwife for advice. Or, if the pain is severe or the bleeding heavy, consider calling 111 or going to A&E. Trust your gut. If it seems urgent, it probably is. Anyway, in these cases, the question of scan timing is mute – speak to someone and follow their advice.

On the other hand: how early can you have a pregnancy scan if you’ve not had any worrying symptoms – but you’d like to confirm that your pregnancy is viable and ease your mind?

In this case, assuming you choose an early pregnancy scan with an experienced sonographer and a quality machine, you can have a scan as early as 6 weeks.

Having said that, if you aren’t especially confident in your estimated due date/gestation – and/or you’d like to avoid an internal scan/transvaginal scan – then I recommend having an early pregnancy scan when you are at least 8 weeks pregnant.

What Does an Early Pregnancy Scan Show?

The earlier you are in your pregnancy, the less of your baby’s anatomy you can see. At 6-11 weeks pregnant, a scan can’t be used to assess your abdominal wall or cord insertion, or your baby’s bladder, stomach bubble, limbs, skull, brain, kidneys, nose, or other anatomy.

An early pregnancy scan at 6 weeks can, however, detect the presence or absence of your baby’s heartbeat, the location of your pregnancy, and the number of babies. It can also give you a more accurate gestation estimate than the one you calculate based on the date of your last menstrual period and cycle length.

How is an Early Pregnancy Scan Done?

The specifics of how an early pregnancy scan is performed depend on which provider you choose and who your sonographer is. At Sneak-A-Peek Ultrasound, I follow a 7-step fetal well-being assessment based on over 9 years of scanning pregnant ladies – both for the NHS and Sneak-A-Peek.

Is Early Pregnancy Scan Safe?

Unlike other medical imaging techniques, ultrasound scans are not harmful to you or your baby. X-rays and CT scans, for example, use ionising radiation, which can be dangerous in high doses. Ultrasound scans, on the other hand, use sound waves to visualise your baby, which is not harmful.

Having said that, there is a risk that an early pregnancy scan won’t be able to detect a fetus. There are two main reasons for this: (1) you are under 6 weeks pregnant at the time of the scan, or (2) you’ve miscarried.

In this situation, it’s impossible to know – based on the scan alone – whether the absence of a fetus is because you’re too early or because you’ve miscarried.

If this happens when you have an early pregnancy scan with me at Sneak-A-Peek, I’ll refer you to the appropriate NHS service for ongoing assessment and care.

You might then have to wait for a week or two until you’re far enough along that there’s no doubt a scan would detect your pregnancy if it’s viable.

It can be really horrible being in limbo for a week or two – which defeats the object of having a private early pregnancy scan – as it increases your anxiety rather easing your mind.

Therefore, I highly recommend having an early pregnancy scan when you are at least 8 weeks pregnant based on your last menstrual period and cycle length (use this due date calculator).

Or, if you can’t wait that long, make sure you are very confident in your dates and discuss it with a sonographer before booking an early pregnancy scan appointment.

In summary, with the right advice and guidance from an experienced sonographer, a private early pregnancy scan can go a long way to ease your mind and give you confidence as you begin your pregnancy journey.

Yours for a happy and healthy pregnancy,

Maria Birch.