At-home Fetal Heart Monitors: How Safe And Accurate Are They?

The day you hear your baby’s heartbeat from inside your womb is momentous. It gives you joy and reassurance about the health of the baby. The doctor makes you listen to the heartbeat using a fetal heart monitor, during the prenatal checkups.

Some mothers like buying a heart monitor to listen to the baby’s heartbeat whenever they want to. But is that a good idea? How can you use a fetal heart monitor at home? MomJunction answers all these questions and more about fetal heart monitors in this post.

What Are Fetal Heart Monitors?

A fetal heart monitor is a handheld device that uses sound waves to hear your baby’s heartbeat. The monitors are also called Doppler or baby heartbeat monitors. They are small and easy to carry, and easily accessible by everyone. While doctors or midwives use them at prenatal checkups, you can use them at home.

Image: Shutterstock

There are two types of fetal monitors: Dopplers (also called Doppler probes or doptones) and fetoscopes (that resemble stethoscopes). With Dopplers, everyone in the room can hear the baby’s heartbeat, whereas fetoscopes allow only one person to hear it (1).

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What Is The Normal Heart Rate Of A Fetus?

The normal heart rate of a fetus ranges between 110 and 160 beats per minute (bpm). It is measurable from week six of pregnancy and varies through gestation, increasing to 170bpm around the 10th week and decreasing to 110bpm at term (2).

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[ Read: 3D Ultrasound: Is It Safe? ]

How Do Fetal Heart Monitors Work?

A fetal heart monitor has a probe, which uses ultrasound technology to detect high-frequency sound waves produced by the heartbeat. The probe sends ultrasound waves into your baby through the skin and tissue.

After encountering a movement, the waves bounce back, and the device translates them into sound, which is a reproduction of the baby’s heartbeat. The machine then amplifies the sound for you to hear (3).

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Where To Buy A Fetal Heart Monitor?

Fetal heart monitors can be purchased and rented online or from medical supply stores. If you decide to purchase one, only buy an FDA-approved device that is safe to use.

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How To Use Fetal Monitors At Home?

The fetal heart monitor can be a little intimidating in the beginning, but it is relatively simple and easy to use.

You will need:

  • Fetal Doppler
  • Ultrasound gel
  • Comfortable place to sit or lie down
  • Tissues or towel

How to use:

Image: Shutterstock

  1. Put some ultrasound gel on your belly to minimize the static and make it easy to detect the fetal heartbeat.
  1. Switch on the Doppler and slide it smoothly over your lower belly. Move it upward, towards your navel until you begin hearing the sound.
  1. When you begin hearing the heartbeat, look at the Doppler screen. If it shows a heartbeat of 120bpm or higher, it is probably the fetal heartbeat, which is like the sound of galloping horses (4).
  1. Once you are done, turn off the machine and wipe away the gel on your belly.
  1. Air-dry the device or clean it with a dry cloth. Do not use any chemicals or water to clean it.

If the fetal heart rate is not as it should ideally be, consult your doctor.

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[ Read: 14th Week Pregnancy Symptoms ]

How Soon Can You Hear A Fetal Heartbeat?

With Doppler you can can hear the heartbeat around the 12th weeksof gestation (5).The result usually depends on the position of the baby and maternal weight.

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Can Fetal Heart Monitors Harm The Baby?

Usually, there is no cause for concern when the doctor or midwife is using the Doppler occasionally. But if you are using the monitor at home frequently, the baby is exposed to ultrasound waves quite often, which can be harmful.

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What Are The Major Risks Of At-Home Fetal Heart Rate Monitors?

At-home fetal heart rate monitors have a few risks associated with them. The US FDA also recommends avoiding them.

1. You lack training:

You may not be able to pick up the heartbeat as easily as the sonographer does. Any internal sound you pick up may seem like a heartbeat for you.

2. It is difficult to recognize any dangerous signs:

You are not trained to recognize the changes in heartbeat or the rhythm of the heart, which can actually indicate a problem.

3. Delay in medical intervention:

Misinterpreting the sounds can delay the doctor’s visit, resulting in severe consequences. You could mistake your heartbeat for the fetus’ heartbeat and delay going to the doctor, presuming all is well with the baby. If the baby is in actual danger, a delayed doctor’s visit could result in a tragedy, as reported in studies (6).

4. Obsession:

Having an at-home Doppler can make you obsessed about checking up on your baby often.

5. Built-in stress:

When you are not able to listen to the baby, you are likely to end up stressed, which is also bad for the baby.

6. Hard to hear the heartbeat:

Sometimes, it is not easy to listen to the heartbeat if the baby is in a wrong position or if the monitor is not responding.

7. Bad equipment:

At-home monitors will not give accurate results as they are not as sophisticated as hospital-grade devices. In most cases, they are just high-powered equipment that emit harmful ultrasound waves. The better tools are highly expensive for usage at home.

8. Dangerous ultrasound waves:

Ultrasound waves can heat the tissues and also create cavitation (tiny bubbles) in the tissues (7).

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[ Read: Causes Of Low Birth Weight In Babies ]

What Should You Do If You Are Worried About The Baby?

If you cannot hear the fetal heartbeat with the monitor, and if the baby is moving less than normal, or is not moving at all, check with your doctor immediately. Meanwhile, you can try a few things to get your baby moving.

  • Have a cold drink
  • Eat a sugary snack
  • Lie down for sometime

Stop using the device for your safety and your baby’s safety. Do not take the unnecessary stress: go to a doctor for reassurance. Note that fetoscopes also carry similar risks of stress and should be avoided.

Next, we answer a few commonly asked questions.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is it safe to use a fetal Doppler at home every day?

It is not a good idea to use fetal Doppler at home every day. Though the procedure to detect the baby’s heartbeat is simple, it is not always easy. Also, the long-term effects could be bad as the baby gets exposed to the ultrasound waves every day. According to the US FDA, handheld Doppler can only be used when there is a medical emergency or under the supervision of a professional (8).

2. Can you use a stethoscope to hear the fetal heartbeat?

Yes, you may try, but it is extremely difficult to hear the fetal heart beat. However, some doctors do not recommend trying it.

3. Can you hear your heartbeat with a fetal Doppler?

Yes, you can hear your heartbeat if the Doppler is placed in a correct position. To listen to the baby’s heartbeat, place it above the pubic bone. Move the Doppler towards the right, over the stomach region, to hear your heartbeat.

4. Can the fetal heart rate say something about the baby’s gender?

No, fetal heart rate will not predict the gender of the baby.

[ Read: 12th Week Pregnancy Symptoms ]

5. How much does a fetal Doppler cost?

The price for fetal Dopplers ranges from $40 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the features and brand.

It is better not to expose your baby to ultrasound waves unnecessarily. Unless you are trained and can differentiate between the fetal heartbeat and general growling in your stomach, the fetal heart monitor is not useful. If anything, it will only add to the stress and give you false reassurances.

In summary, your  best bet is to not purchase home doppler and just wait for your doctor’s appointment to listen to your baby’s heartbeat.

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Dr. Christian Pope

Dr. Christian Pope is Board-certified in Obstetrics & Gynecology, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He is a long-standing medical staff member and past chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. Luke's Hospital of SouthCoast Hospitals in New Bedford, Massachusetts and is in private group practice at Hawthorn Medical Associates, Inc. He is a member... more

Rebecca Malachi

Rebecca is a pregnancy writer and editor with a passion for delivering research-based and engaging content in areas of fertility, pregnancy, birth, and post-pregnancy. She has been into health and wellness writing since 2010. She received her graduate degree in Biotechnology and Genetics from Loyola Academy, Osmania University and obtained a certification in ‘Nutrition and Lifestyle in Pregnancy’ from Ludwig... more