Blind Parents Can Now Feel Their Unborn Baby’s Face Thanks To New 3D Technology

by Karen Belz
Karen Belz has written for sites such as Bustle, HelloGiggles, Romper, and So Yummy. She's the mom of a sassy toddler and drinks an alarming amount of Sugar-Free Red Bull in order to keep up with her.

One of the most thrilling parts of pregnancy for any parent is the anatomy scan. Typically, pregnant women go to this particular ultrasound appointment between 18 and 22 weeks.

While the main goal is to make sure that the baby is forming correctly, it’s also a great time for many parents to learn if they’re having a boy or a girl. It’s also a great time to see what the baby looks like for the first time.

However, that’s a joy that blind parents don’t get to have. Without vision, they’re unable to connect with their unborn baby at this level. While it’s not a necessary part of pregnancy, it’s definitely one that often makes parents feel closer to their child at an early start.

Luckily, technology has changed the game. Instead of visual photos, blind parents are now starting to get access to a 3D model of their baby. By being able to feel what their baby’s face looks like, they’re only strengthening that bond.

The Washington Post interviewed a Cockeysville, Maryland, woman named Taylor Ellis. Taylor, who’s 26, is blind. In the mail, she received a package containing the model, and she said it was unbelievably emotional.

“I was a little bit nervous about opening the box,” she said. “I had never seen a 3-D [image], and now, it’s your baby, and it’s, like, wow.”

According to The Washington Post, the idea came from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It stemmed from a scientific procedure on fetuses who had spina bifida. Obstetrician and surgeon Jena Miller depended on the 3D technology to get a closer look at the spines of fetuses who had it. In her eyes, it was a much better method to figure out who would need surgery.

If you’re unfamiliar with 3D printing, it’s a great technological step forward, and it may very well help the world. Printers create a real-life prototype based around a 3D design. Printers usually assemble these models layer by layer. Tools, toys, and furniture have all been crafted by these devices.

The automotive industry has also started to depend on 3D printers to create car parts. And according to PCMag, even archaeologists have started to use them to help re-create fragile artifacts. That means that people have really started depending on this form of technology to learn more about our world.

Researchers and hospitals such as Johns Hopkins have been using 3D technology for a long time. It’s a great way to make sure surgeries are as minimally invasive as possible. But using that technology to help blind parents bonds with their children is still fairly new.

As of right now, they’re focusing just on the face of the fetus. The whole body is harder to scan, and also a bit trickier to get a clear photo of. But who knows how technology will advance even more in the future? Pretty soon, it may be possible for all parents-to-be to receive a model of their unborn child.

Taylor and her husband, Jeremy Ellis, are both vision impaired. But this pregnancy isn’t their first. They actually have two children already. Back when her older children arrived, Taylor’s vision was still intact. But since they were born, her glaucoma has worsened. So things are notably different with this pregnancy.

As she’s still young, the loss of vision must have been even more devastating. However, opportunities like this help her not miss the big moments this time around. She even said that the model itself was oddly realistic. “It feels super-real when you can feel it,” she said.

According to The Washington Post, each model takes around 3.5 hours to create. It can be a timely project if they’re available to everyone, but right now it’s a kind gesture for parents unable to actually see their child on screen for the first time. For Taylor, she said the model made her feel the same way she did during her first pregnancy, back when her vision was still intact.

Melissa Riccobono, who serves as president of Maryland Parents of Blind Children, is ecstatic over the opportunity. Melissa, who is blind, has three children with her blind husband. Two of her children are also unable to see. She didn’t have the same experience during her own ultrasounds.

Instead, her photos were slightly raised. The feeling of touch was still there, but it was nowhere near as realistic. “It was always a little sad for me not to be able to actually see that ultrasound,” Melissa told The Washington Post. “It’s a really cool way to meet that little being inside of you before you actually meet that little being.”

While you might not know any blind parents offhand, they’re more common than you think — which is why services like this are so important. Stacy Cervenka wrote a piece about her own experience for US News & World Report. “Blindness is considered a low incidence disability,” Stacy wrote. “While most estimates show that there are around 10 million blind people in the United States and we are generally active in our communities, our numbers pale in comparison to people with more common disabilities, such as autism and learning disabilities.”

That said, she’s hoping to stop any myths that people have of blind parents. “The only information many people get about blind people is the wildly inaccurate depictions of us in books, movies and TV shows,” she said. “Blind people are generally portrayed as either helpless, childlike or superhuman. We long for cures, we’re all musical geniuses and we’re usually completely asexual. We can barely take care of ourselves, let alone other human beings.”

But that’s far from the truth. And while it’s a disability, it doesn’t mean that blind people can’t become incredible parents. “Like all families, families with one blind and one sighted parent operate in a thousand different ways,” she said. “Sometimes, the sighted spouse will take care of running errands and driving the kids around to activities, while the blind parent does the cooking, cleaning and household chores.”

For parents who have always been blind, they find a good way to adapt. But for parents like Taylor, who lost her vision gradually, they haven’t necessarily stopped living. Taylor knew that being blind shouldn’t prevent her from trying to have another child, despite knowing her pregnancy would be slightly different.

Items like the 3D models help blind parents experience the joy of that first big ultrasound. Because everyone, regardless of vision, should be able to enjoy the same perks. It may be a while before all hospitals and health centers use 3D printing in this way, but knowing it’s available is truly a game changer for those in need.