What is an echocardiogram?


An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to take a picture of your child's heart. An echocardiogram is also called an echo. This test does not hurt and is completely safe. You will probably be able to stay with your child during the test.

Getting ready for an echocardiogram

Most children do not need to do anything special to get ready for an echocardiogram. However, if your child is under three years old, he may need a sedative. A sedative is a kind of medicine that will help your child sleep for the test. An echocardiogram works best when the child does not move.

Without a sedative:

If your child does not need a sedative, he can eat and drink normally before and after the test. If your child has a favourite toy, a security blanket, or a favourite videotape, please bring that along.

Very young babies cannot be given a sedative. This includes babies who are premature or very small. If this is the case for your child, ask the doctor or nurse what the options are.

If your child needs a sedative for the echocardiogram

Your child needs to lie still during the test so the test results will be accurate. If your child needs a sedative, the nurse will give your child a sedative to swallow. This is medicine that will help your child sleep for the test. The medicine lasts just long enough for the test to be done.

If you want to find out more about sedatives, please ask your doctor or nurse.

Eating and drinking before an echocardiogram

If your child is having a sedative for the test, he must stop eating and drinking several hours before the test. A nurse will call you in the week before the test to make sure you understand what and when your child can eat and drink. The table below also tells you when your child must stop eating and drinking.

What your child can eat and drink before the sleep medicine

Time before test

What you need to know

8 hours

No more solid food, milk, or orange juice. This also means no gum or candy.

Your child can still drink clear liquids. Clear liquids are anything you can see through, such as apple juice, ginger ale, or water.

Your child can also eat Jell-O or popsicles.

6 hours

No more milk or formula.

4 hours

Stop breastfeeding your baby.

2 hours

No more clear liquids. This means no more apple juice, water, or ginger ale. Your child cannot eat any popsicles or Jell-O.

General anaesthesia for echocardiograms

If your child is older than three years but cannot lie still, he may need general anaesthesia. This is a kind of sleep medicine that is given by a doctor. Your child will have a special appointment in another area of the hospital. The echo machine will be brought to your child. A nurse will call you in the week before the test to make sure you understand how to get ready for the test and the sleep medicine.

What will happen during the echocardiogram

The person who will do the test is specially trained to do echocardiograms. This person is called a sonographer.

The sonographer will first measure your child's weight and height. Then, he or she will bring you and your child to a special echo room.

Your child will lie on a special bed that can move up and down. Your child should take off his sweater, shirt, and other clothes above the waist.

Echocardiogram Procedure
Echocardiogram Procedure

The sonographer will put three stickers on your child's chest or arms. These stickers are called electrodes. They are connected by wires to the echo machine. They record your child's heartbeat during the test.

Next, the sonographer will put some jelly on your child's chest and belly so that the probe can move easily over your child's skin. The probe is like a camera that takes pictures of your child's heart. It is about 15 centimetres (6 inches) long and has a rounded end that sits lightly on the jelly.

Most of the lights in the room will be turned off so the sonographer can see the pictures on the computer screen. The sonographer will move the probe around to take pictures of your child's heart from different angles. Pictures are taken from the stomach, over the chest, and from the neck. You can watch these pictures on the computer screen. All of the pictures are saved on the computer.

Your child will feel no pain during the echocardiogram. He or she may feel some pressure from the probe. At times, your child may hear a loud swooshing noise when the echo machine records the flow of the blood through the heart.

After the sonographer completes the pictures, she will make a report and show the images to one of the cardiologists, a heart specialist. The cardiologist may choose to take more pictures at this time. This is a normal part of the test. During this time, your child will stay connected to the echo machine. The sonographer or nurse will let you know when your child can get dressed again.

An echocardiogram takes from 30 minutes to 90 minutes or more. Often the first echocardiogram that your child has will take longer. How long the test lasts will also depend on why your child's doctor asked for the test.

Helping your child prepare for the echocardiogram

Be honest and open with your child about what to expect. Explain what will happen during the echocardiogram. Use as much detail as you think is appropriate for your child's level of understanding. Tell him about the appointment in advance so he is not surprised to show up at the hospital. Tell your child the test does not hurt and that there is no reason to be afraid of the test. Let your child know that you will be with him during the test.

Role playing the test with your child

If you want, you and your child can practice the test at home. Have your child lie on his back on a bed in a darkened room. Tell him that it will be warm and very quiet because the sonographer has to concentrate on the study.

Put some warm hand lotion on the middle and left side of your child's chest. With the bottom of a smooth drinking glass push the hand lotion around on the chest. Explain that the glass is like the camera that the sonographer uses to take the pictures.

Bring along your child's special toy, security blanket, or a favourite videotape.

Tell your child he will have to take off his own shirt or sweater and wear clothing provided at the echocardiogram test lab.

Tell your child that you will lie down beside him or her on the echo bed during the test. Make sure the child knows the test will take some time, but you will never leave him alone.

Getting the results of the echocardiogram

The only people who can give you the results of your child's echocardiogram are your child's cardiologist, paediatrician or another specialist who ordered the test. They are the only ones who know enough about your child's heart health.

The sonographer doing the test and the cardiologist reviewing the pictures are not allowed to give you the results.

Key points

  • An echocardiogram is a test that takes pictures of the heart.
  • The test does not hurt. It takes between half an hour and an hour and a half to do.
  • A child needs to be still during the test, so some children need to be sedated or put to sleep for the test.
  • If your child needs to be sedated for the test, he must not eat or drink for awhile before the test.

Fraser Golding, MD, FRCPC

Jane Best, RN

Jennifer Kilburn, BScN, MN

Carrie Heffernan, RN, MN


At SickKids:

This test is usually done on 4B in the Atrium of the hospital. Each of these rooms has a VCR/DVD and television that your child can watch during the test.