Blind, expectant parents cry with joy 'seeing' baby in utero

Because of advances in 3-D printing technology, visually impaired expectant parents are for the first time able to "see" their babies in utero via printable plastic models of their sonogram photos.

Blind parents-to-be now have a way to experience the joys of a sonogram (the image produced from an ultrasound scan), thanks to 3-D printing technology that can produce life-sized models of their babies in utero.

While researching ways to improve prenatal diagnostic tools, Brazilian industrial designer Jorge Roberto Lopes dos Santos realized that emerging 3-D printers could give expectant moms and dads with visual impairments a way to cherish the kinds of prenatal keepsakes that other parents-to-be have long enjoyed from traditional sonogram photos.

By being able to print out a tangible, plastic model of their unborn child based on sonogram photos, blind moms and dads would be able to hold representations their babies at 12 weeks or 24 weeks.

"We have done this with a few blind parents in Brazil, which was very emotional, and also with one mother in the United States and another case in France," dos Santos said from Rio de Janeiro. "Everybody was crying, crying. It's because it's an opportunity for them to understand … they can touch the ears, the arms, the face of their babies, and it's a very emotional moment even for me."

Related: Scientists use 3-D printing technology to help 'grow' ear

Dos Santos's company, Tecnologia Humana 3D, has been working with doctors to help them use the 3-D ultrasounds for diagnostic purposes.

"When we work with physicians, we're doing simulations in 3-D that can be useful, especially for cases when some kinds of malformations can happen," he said.

For example, models of faces could reveal a cleft lip or detect physical features indicating Down syndrome, the most common chromosome abnormality in humans.

The models could cost between $200 and $300, depending on the size and detail, dos Santos said.

Many services already offer so-called "4-D ultrasound" pictures, which are intrauterine photographs that can show visual characteristics of an unborn baby's face in greater detail than a flat image. Those photographs can start at $125, according to New York-based 4D ultrasound clinic View A Miracle.

Dos Santos said he's aware of another company in Japan that creates resin models of a pregnant woman's abdomen, with the fetus inside. However, the mother's uterus forms part of the model, so blind parents wouldn't be able to feel the exact shape and details of the baby.

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