It is MAGICAL to hear your unborn baby’s heartbeat for the first time!
Like with an ultrasound, the fetal heart monitor provides concrete proof that there really is a little wonderchild inside of you! It’s so amazing to hear, that some mamas want to hear it every day, again and again.
Buying an at-home fetal heart monitor lets mamas listen in whenever they like. But that’s a really bad idea. Why? We break it all down for you in this post.
What is a fetal heart monitor?
Just like it sounds, these at-home monitors are used by mamas—and sometimes family members—to listen to baby’s heartbeat.
There are two basic ways to listen to your baby’s heart beat at home:
- Dopplers, also known as doptones or Doppler probes, and
- Fetoscopes, which closely resemble stethoscopes.
Most midwives and doctors use dopplers at appointments, unless you request otherwise, and they have a fetoscope available (not all providers do!)
What do fetal heart monitors do?
The Doppler uses high-frequency sound waves and is a handheld ultrasound device, while fetoscopes work by amplifying sound.
The ultrasound waves of a Doppler pass through your skin and tissue into the baby, where they bounce back after encountering movement. The Doppler then translates that movement into amplified sound.
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Why do mamas use them?
Companies that sell fetal heart monitors advertise them as a way to have peace of mind by making sure your baby’s heart is beating strong. It is reassuring to hear your little one’s heart, and it can be fun to share that experience with your family. Some moms have reported listening to the baby as part of their nightly routine, or using it to show the other kids what it means that mama’s pregnant. (source) (source)
How soon can I hear my baby’s heartbeat?
Professional Doppler equipment can pick up a baby’s heartbeat somewhere between 10 and 14 weeks of pregnancy.
At-home models, however, might have a harder time picking up the heartbeat so early; the quality of the fetal monitor influences how early one can hear that tiny heart beating.
A fetoscope can sometimes detect a heartbeat as early as 14 weeks, although 20 weeks–or even more–is more common.
Top 9 risks of fetal heart rate monitors
What these companies fail to mention is that at-home fetal heart monitors can carry some serious risks. Even the FDA says to avoid them!
1. You’re not trained to use a fetal heart monitor
Without proper training as a sonographer, it can be difficult to pick up the baby’s heartbeat. Maybe baby’s in a bad position, or maybe what you think is their heartbeat is actually your stomach digesting the salsa you had with lunch or your own heartbeat, not the baby’s. Any internal sound picked up on unsophisticated equipment by someone who isn’t trained in the device can sound like a heartbeat.
2. You don’t know how to recognize a dangerous change
Again, without the proper training, it’s not a reliable method to read a baby’s heartbeat. You could be falsely reassured by finding your baby’s heartbeat, when in reality, you’re not likely to recognize a problem even if you do find the heartbeat.
Unless you’re trained as a midwife or obstetrician, how will you know how to detect a change in heart rate or rhythm that may indicate a potential issue?
3. Delaying medical treatment
There have been cases where mothers felt that something was wrong but delayed medical care after they supposedly found their baby’s heartbeat on the fetal heart monitor. This false reassurance literally cost this mama her baby’s life in this case reported in the British Medical Journal.
4. Unable to hear a heartbeat
On the other hand, it can be hard to hear a heartbeat sometimes, and it’s all too easy to convince yourself that something is wrong. Maybe baby is in the wrong position, is not big enough to hear yet, or there’s some other reason the fetal heart monitor isn’t picking anything up. But that doesn’t mean anything is wrong, as mama may assume in a worried state. (source)
Not being able to hear your baby for whatever reason can cause a lot of stress for Mama, which results in stress for the baby. The resulting flood of hormones causes physical changes for mama, and can have harmful effects on your developing baby. (source)
6. Questionable ultrasound waves
Doppler fetal heart monitors carry even more risk, as they expose the baby to ultrasound waves. Websites that sell at-home fetal monitors insist they’re safe and that the FDA has found no adverse effects.
This business reassures moms that even the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine says they’re safe. However, these statements were issued back in 1993. Ultrasound machines are now 7 times more intense than they were 23 year ago when that statement was issued.
An FDA biomedical engineer and Ph.D. says:
“Ultrasound can heat tissues slightly, and in some cases, it can also produce very small bubbles (cavitation) in some tissues.” (source)
Animal studies have revealed that ultrasound waves can heat the brain, and result in brain hemorrhages and damaged intestines after exposure.
While there haven’t been human studies of birth defects associated with ultrasound use, the routine use of dopplers and ultrasounds is a fairly recent phenomenon. As a general rule, brief periods of ultrasound exposure are unlikely to be problematic, but daily exposure–as with a doppler at home–could be problematic. (source)
7. Bad equipment
Since these at-home devices aren’t sophisticated pieces of equipment, they don’t give very accurate results. You could get a higher-powered device, but that will only increase the potential for damaging ultrasound waves. The better machines also cost a few hundred dollars, making it an expensive and dangerous hobby.
8. Just get an ultrasound if needed
Routine ultrasounds aren’t a good idea, but if one is medically indicated, then be sure to have it done by an experienced sonographer. They’ll be able to get in and out of there quickly to limit your baby’s exposure to ultrasound waves. Don’t rely on a home baby heartbeat monitor to do the job of professional equipment and a trained sonographer. (source)
9. An unethical sale
Doppler fetal heart monitors are actually prescription medical devices, even though some websites are unethically selling them over the counter. They’re in the same category as the ultrasound machine found at your doctor’s office. According to the FDA, both Doppler fetal heart monitors and ultrasound machines are:
“Prescription devices designed to be used by trained health care professionals. They are not intended for over-the-counter sale or use.” (source)
What you should do if you’re worried about baby
- If you’re worried about your baby for any reason—if movement is less than usual, or has stopped altogether—contact your doctor or midwife immediately. Never rely on a fetal heart doppler for reassurance.
- Skip listening to and recording abdominal sounds while pregnant for the safety of you and your baby. Wait until your baby has made his grand appearance before you start recording and taking photos of him.
- Even though fetoscopes don’t rely on potentially harmful ultrasound waves, they carry the same risks of false reassurance and unnecessary stress.
Please, steer clear of baby heart monitors
Don’t expose your baby to unnecessary ultrasound waves from a fetal heart rate monitor. Unless you’ve been trained, you won’t know how to distinguish your baby’s heartbeat from your stomach rumbling, leading to either false reassurance that something isn’t wrong when your mama instinct tells you otherwise, or stressing when there’s nothing wrong.
There’s enough to worry about as it is, so let’s not add another thing to the list!
And most importantly, frequent and/or prolonged exposure to ultrasound waves has not been well-studied. This isn’t a toy to gather the family around every night to listen to the baby. We know it can be tempting, but it’s not worth the health and safety of your baby (and your sanity!).