Fetal heart monitors measure the rate and rhythm of a fetus’s heart. Doctors may recommend fetal heart rate monitoring during late pregnancy or labor to monitor the fetus’s health. The monitors that doctors use can measure heart rate, heart rate variability, accelerations, and decelerations.
This gives doctors important information about a fetus’s health.
It is possible to buy handheld heart monitoring devices for use at home, too. However, these are different from the monitors that doctors use. Unlike professional monitors, at-home devices can only measure heart rate.
Read on to learn more about fetal heart monitors, including the types that doctors use, at-home devices, and safe alternatives that allow people to track fetal health.
Doctors use fetal heart monitors to get an indication of a fetus’s health. They may use one in the following situations:
- During routine prenatal appointments: Healthcare professionals can use an ultrasound device to briefly monitor the fetus’s heart rate during routine checkups.
- To monitor for specific concerns: If someone is experiencing troubling symptoms during pregnancy, such as bleeding, a doctor may recommend heart monitoring to assess the well-being of the fetus. They can also use fetal heart monitoring to determine if preterm labor medications are affecting the fetus. These medications stop labor from beginning too early.
- During high risk pregnancies: If a person is at high risk of health or birth complications during pregnancy, a doctor may use a fetal heart monitor to detect signs of distress as early as possible.
- During labor: Once labor begins, a doctor can use a heart monitor to make sure the fetus is doing well during birth.
Several factors can increase the likelihood of a person having a high risk pregnancy. These include:
- having a health condition such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or HIV
- having overweight or obesity, which can increase the risk of several health conditions during pregnancy
- having multiple births, such as twins or triplets, which can make preterm birth or premature labor more likely
- being very young or
older than 35 years of age, as these groups are more likely to experience preeclampsia and gestational high blood pressure
It is important to note that not everyone with these risk factors will go on to have a high risk pregnancy, and not all medical practices will recommend fetal monitoring based on a person’s age or body weight alone.
Doctors can use two types of fetal heart monitors: external or internal. The following sections will look at these in more detail.
A Doppler ultrasound device is an external monitor that uses sound waves to detect a fetus’s heartbeat. To check the heartbeat, a doctor places an ultrasound probe against a person’s abdomen.
If a doctor wants to monitor the fetal heart rate continuously during labor, they can strap the probe to the person’s abdomen. This will record the fetus’s heartbeat pattern and alert the doctor to any changes that could indicate distress.
People can also use handheld versions of Doppler ultrasound devices at home. However, these devices only measure the speed of the fetal heart rate. The
Doctors can fit an internal heart monitor once the amniotic sac breaks. This can happen naturally at the beginning of labor or artificially through a procedure that a healthcare professional carries out. As a result, doctors tend to use this type of monitor when a person is already in labor and if an external monitor is not providing a clear reading.
To fit the monitor, a healthcare professional will insert a catheter containing a thin wire through the cervix and place an electrode on the fetus’s head. If the doctor also wants to measure the pressure within the uterus, they may also insert a catheter that measures uterine pressure.
The fetus’s movements do not affect this type of monitor. This makes internal monitor readings more accurate.
- Health effects: Ultrasound devices can heat tissues and create tiny air bubbles inside them. Scientists do not know if this has any long-term impact on health.
- Inaccuracy: Doppler ultrasound machines require training to operate and interpret correctly. People using at-home devices may get inaccurate results, which could pose a risk to their pregnancy. Additionally, a normal fetal heart rate does not always mean that a fetus is healthy.
- Stress: If a person uses an at-home device and cannot hear a heartbeat, they may worry unnecessarily about the health of the fetus. This can cause avoidable stress and anxiety.
Receiving heart monitoring from a healthcare professional can prevent any risk of inaccuracy and worry. If a person is considering trying an at-home fetal heart monitor, it is important that they speak with a doctor first.
People who still wish to use an at-home monitor should be aware of the following:
Although mobile apps might seem like a safer alternative to at-home Doppler devices, they come with their own risks.
Mobile apps have very little regulation from health authorities. Many are also inaccurate. In fact, one
Some of the apps did provide a disclaimer that said that they were inaccurate. However, some did not, which could lead to people incorrectly believing that their fetus is healthy. This may mean they do not seek help from a doctor or midwife, which could put their pregnancy at risk.
People should not use or rely on fetal heart rate monitoring apps for an accurate insight into their fetus’s health. Only a healthcare professional can provide this.
There are some safer ways for people to get an insight into their fetus’s health at home. These include the following.
Fetal movement counting
Movement is a good indicator of a fetus’s well-being. During the early weeks of pregnancy, a person may feel swirling or fluttering movements. As time goes on, they will notice more pronounced kicks and jerky movements.
Fetal movement counting, or kick counting, involves setting aside time each day to monitor the rhythm of these movements. Most people can feel a fetus’s movements after 20 weeks. These movements should continue throughout the pregnancy until giving birth.
To try fetal movement counting, speak with a doctor for advice first. Then, follow these tips:
- Choose a time each day to monitor the fetus’s movements. During the evenings or after a meal is often a good time.
- Write down the number of times the fetus moves or kicks within 1 hour.
- After several days, people will typically notice that the fetus moves roughly the same number of times within that hour. This is the baseline number of movements.
- Keep monitoring the movements each day. If there are changes to the number of movements, or if the fetus takes longer to move, call a doctor immediately.
If a person does not want to use a Doppler machine, they can use a fetoscope instead. A fetoscope is similar to a stethoscope, but it is a slightly different shape. It can detect a baby’s heartbeat at
One benefit of using a fetoscope over a Doppler machine is that it is not an ultrasonic device, so it does not carry the same potential risks. However, like with a Doppler machine, a person should not panic if they do not hear a heartbeat, as long as they feel the baby moving.
A person should speak to a doctor if they notice any of the following changes:
- The fetus is moving less than usual.
- There is no movement at all.
- The fetus has a different movement pattern.
If someone is worried, they should contact a doctor immediately rather than trying to assess the fetus’s health using an at-home Doppler device. This is not a reliable way to determine whether or not the fetus is in distress.
Fetal heart monitors measure a fetus’s heart rate and rhythm. Healthcare professionals may use them later in a person’s pregnancy or during labor. They can also use them in high risk pregnancies or to check fetal health in people experiencing specific symptoms, such as bleeding.
At-home devices are available, but people should not use them without discussing this with a doctor or midwife first. Interpreting sounds from a Doppler device is complicated, and only a trained healthcare professional can do this accurately. A false reading could be risky, as people may mistake their own heartbeat for the fetus’s.
Instead, people can track a fetus’s movements or use a fetoscope to get insights into their health. If a person notices a change in the fetus’s usual movements, they should contact a doctor or midwife right away.