Fetal Heart Monitor: 9 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 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.

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)

5. Stress

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!).

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 75,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

Midwife Maura Winkler CNM Mama Natural

Reviewed By
Maura Winkler, CNM, IBCLC

Maura Winkler, CNM, CD, IBCLC is a Certified Nurse Midwife, Registered Nurse, Certified Doula, Board Certified Lactation Consultant, wife and mother of two.

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31 Comments

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  1. Are non stress tests (NSTs) pulsed doppler? If the mom is ‘high risk’, she is required to get these weekly towards the end of the pregnancy. What is the potential harm?

  2. Wow I am so glad I have read through this post and through the comments, though different opinions, because I have decided not to get one. I do worry about the little things way too much and also would find comfort in hearing the heartbeat and might not react as quickly as I should if something did worry me. Great post momma!

  3. Well my obstetrician says it’s fine so I’m gonna listen to my actual doctor instead of whatever the hell you are. We’ve been having ultrasounds for decades, and we haven’t boiled any baby’s brains yet. You’re just peddling woo and spreading doctorphobia. Listen to your doctors, people. IT takes a lot more than an afternoon on Google to earn an MD.

  4. You say “This false reassurance literally cost this mama her baby’s life in this case reported in the British Medical Journal.”

    This is untrue. The article you link to says, “It is also not possible to say exactly when the foetus died and whether the baby could have been saved if the woman had sought medical attention sooner.”

  5. I’m looking to get one because i can’t get an ultrasound. I had a “typical” pregnancy with my first child; whom I’m still breastfeeding (2 yrs). I havent had much *noticeable* symptoms, but the main one was I felt Movement (about 19 weeks from assumed conception). After a month, I made an appt. at the same women’s/birth center with my first pregnancy, but it was 2 weeks away.

    In the meantime, I did try going to the ER, but I could only get there on a Saturday, and they didn’t have anyone to do ultrasounds (though the maternity floor was upstairs). I mentioned miscarriage & whatnot (true concern, felt a lot less movement). They just did a pee test and the (male) doctor said “definitely not pregnant,” a bit too cheerfully.

    Finally got to my appt. & it was with a new Dr. He was uncaring and didn’t even listen to my concerns, nor when hubby asked. I didn’t think of asking him to get a Doppler or even a stethoscope to check (til back in the car), nor did he even suggest them. He didn’t even feel my belly! Just said “not pregnant” because of a negative pee test there as well. Though at the end, was happy to say i can come back if i wanted birth control /:L

    I’m in a rural location, and not many options. These home dopplers can help when the medical community won’t. Just sucks I cant SEE whats going on inside me because no one will even look or listen. The next few weeks are a waiting game…

  6. That is an awful thing to say. Any miscarriage is traumatic, no matter if it is one or four and no matter what trimester. Terrible, terrible thing to say.

  7. You are seriously a terrible person that definitely does not deserve to have children. No one loss is more traumatic than another. I’d like to see you say this to the face of a mom going through a miscarriage no matter how early on in the pregnancy she was. Sincerely hope you never have kids.

  8. I agree with you 100%. I’ve had 10 miscarriages now and with my last pregnancy, #10, I wanted so badly to hear the heartbeat that my Dr said was there but was too low to hear yet (we had an ultrasound at 5 weeks and 6 days). We went to Babies R Us and bought a fetal heart monitor. We were so excited. We rushed home loaded it with batteries and with some difficulty got the band around my stomach.

    I scoured the instructions after getting the band on, only to realize a few things.
    1: It wasn’t intended for use by anyone with a girth of more than 50″ before pregnancy. (I was sadly in that category)
    2: It wasn’t intended for use until the 3rd trimester. (We were struggling to get to the 2nd!)
    3: It indicated that if we couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat within 5-10 minutes we should wait until another day to avoid health risks for the baby.

    This crushed me as an anxious mom who just wanted to hear that magical sound! When we lost our precious baby only a couple of weeks later, we had the awful experience of having to return it. We decided to help some other new parents out and left the batteries in the package for them. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is to have to explain to a perky 18-year-old cashier that no I didn’t want to exchange it for an item on my registry, because our baby had died and I just wanted a refund!

    Happily, on what would have been that baby’s 1st birthday 2-16-18, we got to see our baby on ultrasound for the first time and see the heart, pounding away and hear that beautiful magic sound!!!!!! Here’s hoping that the 11th try really is the charm as it seems to be so far!

    • Elisha, I just wanted to say congratulations and best wishes for a healthy pregnancy and birth! I have struggled as well (5 years of infertility treatments), but am now about 8 weeks pregnant with our first. We’ve seen a heartbeat, but won’t get to hear it for a couple of weeks. I think it takes a special person and a strong partnership to persevere through so much. I couldn’t be happier for you.

  9. Your blog is so informative. Thanks for sharing a useful information.

  10. Hey I get it if it’s dangerous but my daughter was stillborn at 35 weeks that 1 week before full term, I am 28 weeks with my rainbow baby and have considered these when his movements have been sparse. It is no point being rude to her that is uncalled for and childish please dont teach that rudeness to your 3 successfully healthy children BC lord knows the world has enough jerks in it without you raising more.

  11. The statement that at-home dopplers can’t detect a heartbeat before 20 weeks isn’t right. We found ours at 8 weeks 5 days, and lots of people find it even before that. I also find it much faster than my midwives do, usually within a few seconds. Dealing with pregnancy after a loss is indescribably stressful, and the Doppler has been my sanity over the last month (I’m 12 weeks now). Also, I was offered weekly ultrasounds and probably would have taken them if not for my doppler. I think 10-20 seconds on doppler is preferable to 5-10 minutes on ultrasound, so I am forever grateful for it. There are some mom’s who will search for an hour or more at a time and whose babies are still fine. In the beginning, when it took us a while, we limited ourselves to 5 minutes at a time, and as I said, it has saved our sanity. It’s all about balance.

  12. So very sorry for your loss, Mindy. It is horrible, and often people don’t get it.

  13. You don’t have to be “trained” to use this device. It’s pretty self explanatory considering a reasonable minded person would be able to differentiate a consistent heartbeat from digestion.

    • I agree that you don’t have to be trained to use a doppler. However, one needs to be trained and have experience to be able to interpret what one is hearing. What has been emphasised more than once in the article is the problem of being misled by a false positive result.

  14. 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?

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

  18. 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!

  19. 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..

    • No, it doesn’t apply to Owlet. There is no radiation to my knowledge with that device. It uses, the electrical waves/impulses naturally found in the body.This is a similar experience to having a heart monitor on in the hospital, which they have been using for decades with little to no harm to patients. Since Owlet can only be used after the birth of your baby there’s little reason to fear. I’m sure they have wonderful FAQs on their website.

      Personally, I’m a huge fan of them in general and I plan to buy one for my baby. My cousin just bought one for her’s, and her husband is a Pediatric ICU nurse. They both swear by the peace of mind it gives them.

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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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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