Fetal Heart Monitor: 10 Reasons to Just Say No

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 kinds of at-home fetal heart rate monitors:

  • Dopplers, also known as doptones or Doppler probes, and
  • Fetoscopes, which closely resemble stethoscopes.

If you have a midwife, she likely uses a fetoscope at appointments.

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.

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?

Professional Doppler equipment can pick up a baby’s heartbeat somewhere between 10 and 14 weeks of pregnancy.

At-home models, however, can’t detect a heartbeat until after the 5th month, or 20 weeks.

A fetoscope can sometimes detect a heartbeat as early as 14 weeks, although 20 weeks is more common.

Top 10 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!

💔 Risk #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. Any internal sound picked up on unsophisticated equipment by someone who isn’t trained in the device can sound like a heartbeat.

💔 Risk #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 in sonography, how will you know how to detect a change in heart rate or rhythm that may indicate a potential issue?

💔 Risk #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.

💔 Risk #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)

💔 Risk #5 Don’t stress out

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)

💔 Risk #6 Damaging 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 an at-home fetal monitor isn’t likely to be as strong as the machine at your local hospital, the ultrasound waves are still present. And the risk increases the more often you use the device. (source)

💔 Risk #7 Baby’s instinct

Babies instinctively move away from Doppler radar waves, which can make it hard to hear their heartbeat in the first place. These sound waves are so distressing to them that they instinctively know to move away—that whatever this thing is, they don’t like it.

“We should respect this behavior, assuming that it occurs for good reason, and make responsible decisions on the recreational use of such devices, taking the baby’s development into account.” (source)

💔 Risk #8 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.

💔 Risk #9 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)

💔 Risk #10 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 extensively in sonography, 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 can cause serious damage to your baby. 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!).

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  1. What exactly happens to the baby? All you say is: frequent and/or prolonged exposure to ultrasound waves can cause serious damage to your baby. You don’t elaborate to what damage and where and how much. Can you elaborate?

  2. My son died at 33 weeks gestation, once delivered the Doctor saw his cord was wrapped so tightly around his neck that they had to cut it off, I wish I had had a Doppler then so I could have possibly monitored and noticed a deceleration, his movements did NOT slowly decrease, he moved a ton and then not at all there was no in between. While pregnant with my daughter I used a Doppler every day, it was the only thing that would get me through the day, the longer I used it the more efficient I became. If I had t had a Doppler I probably would have lived in the hospital going here so often, I didn’t know there were radiation risks, I also had bi weekly and gen weekly ultrasounds while pregnant with my daughter. She is very healthy and happy and she is alive and I am thankful. I understand it may not be the right choice for everyone, but for me I felt it was what I had to do.

  3. Mama Natural,
    My birthing center does the fetal Doppler at each of my monthly appointments (after 10wks). Would you suggest declining them? Or is it safe in the hands of professionals?
    Happy holidays!

    • It’s certainly much safer in the hands of pros than it is with untrained folks. Many moms choose to limit their Doppler exposure. Some find that the reassurance of hearing baby’s heartbeat outweighs any potential risks. Really, it’s up to you and your midwife.

  4. I just got back from my first prenatal appointment and I’m soooo disappointed. There is only one hospital in the area, and they require doppler readings and ultrasounds at most appointments, and constant doppler monitoring during birth. I’m now in a quandary over whether to just skip the appointments (because they said if I refuse those procedures, they would refuse me as a patient), travel 1 hour away for each appointment and the birth, or forget the whole system and try at home (with no midwives or doulas in my area). :O Why do the doctors have no faith in birth??

    • I’m so sorry that you are experiencing this. Please don’t go the unassisted home birth route though, if something were to happen you need someone trained to help you or baby or both. I would bring some studies to the hospital (must be studies and not blog posts) that show routine ultrasounds are unnecessary (or harmful) and remind them that you are hiring them and will refuse such unnecessary interventions based on science. If that doesn’t work I would consider traveling farther for prenatal care. It sounds like if they are so backwards in their policy about ultrasounds and monitoring they aren’t likely to be very progressive about other interventions.

      • In states that are not pro midwife, midwives tend to “Go underground” so to speak. Sometimes if you ask around ( not at the Drs.) You can find a midwife even though they don’t advertise except by word of mouth🙂

  5. I had one of these things with my now 3yr old daughter. I think I used it twice and only because my husband was unable to make it to either ultrasound. I had heard of them being dangerous after I had my daughter. Thanked my lucky stars because I was already a high risk pregnancy due to 2 miscarriages and my oldest daughter being born 3 month premature. I plan on sharing this on every social media site I use!

  6. Would the same apply to a baby monitor such as Owlet? Owlet is a little monitor attached to a sock that detects the baby’s heartbeat and oxygen level via pulse oximetry. Anyone familiar with this?

    • I have the same question! Hopefully, someone can give us some insight on this..

  7. Thank you for writing an overdue article – leave the monitoring to the professionals, please!

  8. I had a fetal monitor for my first two pregnancies. After almost two years of infertility and miscarriages, I found it desperately reassuring. When I found myself unexpectedly pregnant with my third baby, I decided not to get another, and I am SO grateful I did not, because my baby most certainly would have died. After an overnight and early morning of significantly reduced fetal movement at 37 weeks I called my doctor in a panic. They told me to come right over and I was immediately hooked up to a Doppler where her heartbeat was immediately picked up at 150 bpm. Relief!!! So I thought. They quickly determined that although the number seemed good, it did not have the peaks/accelerations it should have, there were a few decelerations, and of course no movement. An ultrasound confirmed my daughter was in distress (but could not determine why) and would be born that day. Turns out, the cord was wrapped so tightly around her foot it cut off her blood and oxygen supply and was nearly dead when she was born. She spent 6 days in the NICU, but is now the picture of health.I thank God everyday I did not have a Doppler, because I probably would have just heard her heart and trusted all was well and lost her.

  9. I groan every time I see some new crazy parenting gadget, I think there is even an app for heart beat monitoring on the iPhone as well. I always think to myself, if this was 30 years ago when I was born, my mama had none of it, so therefore, I don’t need it.

    I even saw a full blown TV monitor in development that a woman is supposed to attach to her stomach giving everyone a full view of the baby. The creators said that it was helpful for people to actually bond with their babies before they were born. I really hope their machine doesn’t get fully developed. It just seems way more trouble than it’s worth.

  10. FYI, the ads that show on this page are to buy two different brands of baby heart monitors. Gotta love AdChoice’s algorithms 😉

    • Yep, the fetal heart monitor companies are paying for this post. 🤓 Thank you advertisers of products that, as the FDA says, “are not intended for over-the-counter sale or use.”

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