Fetal Heart Monitors (A.K.A Dopplers): Are They Safe?

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April 3, 2018

If you ask just about any mother out there what the most beautiful memory she has of her entire pregnancy, the most common answer you’ll likely get back is “the moment I heard by baby’s heart beat for the first time ever”.

After all these weeks, the thought of a young and growing baby inside you is no longer just a thought – it becomes a reality that you’re immersed in.

During this phase, the only thing you can ever think of is how your baby’s doing inside your womb. Are they moving safely? Are they developing according to schedule? Is their heart beating properly?

However, and as you’ll be discovering as you continue to read the rest of this article, using a fetal heart monitor at home and by yourself for these purposes is not exactly a good idea.

What Is A Fetal Heart Monitor?

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, let’s first cover what exactly a fetal heart monitor is, what it does and why it’s popular.

In simple words, a fetal heart monitor – also commonly referred to as a Doppler or a baby heartbeat monitor – is used by mothers, fathers, family members and anyone else who would like to listen to a baby’s heartbeats while they’re still inside their mother’s womb.

How do they work exactly, you ask? Fetal Dopplers emit high frequency ultrasound waves that penetrate the mother’s skin and tissue and make their way to the baby.

After these high frequency ultrasounds detect the baby’s movement, they go back to where they came from. This, in return, results in you (and everyone else around at the time) clearly hearing the sound of the baby’s heartbeats.

This is one of the main difference between fetal heart monitors and fetal stethoscopes. While the former allows you and everyone else around at the time to listen to the baby’s heartbeats all together at the same time, fetal stethoscopes only allow the doctor or midwife operating it to listen to the baby’s heartbeats at that time.

Why Do Parents Like To Use These?

Fetal heart monitors aren’t exactly new in town – in fact, the first ever fetal doppler monitor was invented in 1958 by Dr. Edward H. Hon.

1) Bonding Experience

Hearing your little one’s heart beat is a chance for you to bond with your spouse or other family members, experience a magical moment and look forward to what’s hopefully coming your way soon.

Many families set aside time each and every night to get together and listen to the baby’s heart beats.

2) Curiosity

Let’s be real here for a second, we humans are curious beings by nature and instinct, so it’s only normal for parents to want to hear the heartbeat of the little precious baby they’re expecting!

3) Educational

If you have other young children at home who are told they’ve got a brother or sister on the way, having them hear the baby’s heart beat makes for an excellent educational experience.

4) Reassurance 

Besides the curiosity we’re all guilty for, parents like to use fetal heart monitors for reassurance purposes and to be reassured that their fetus’s heart is beating properly.

This is especially true among mothers who notice that their baby’s movement has decreased as of late or, in some cases, has suddenly stopped altogether.

And let’s face it, if you had to go to the doctor’s office each and every single time you wanted to hear your baby’s heartbeat, you’d spend a fortune on hospital bills and the entire staff there would make a laughing stock out of you.

Experts claim that a healthy baby’s heart rate falls anywhere between 110-120 beats per minute on the lower end to 160-180 beats per minute on the higher end while they’re still in their mother’s womb, falling towards the lower limit when the baby is still and not moving, and rising towards the upper limit when the baby is moving.

So, you could sense something wrong if your baby’s heart rate is lower than 110 beats per minute or higher than 160 beats per minute at any given time.

Besides how many times the heart beats per minute, an abnormal heartbeat pattern could be detected by using the monitor.

In such instances, you should never rely on a home based fetal heart rate monitor for reassurance (or for reason to panic) – you should only rely on what your doctor or midwife has to say about this.

5) Going Into Early Labor

Consistently keeping track of your fetus’s heart rate can help you determine whether you’re going into early labor.

Why Is Using An At Home Baby Heart Monitor A Bad Idea?

Initially, manufacturers designed fetal heart monitors so they could only be operated by medical professionals who know what they’re doing.

It was very difficult to get hold of one if you weren’t in the medical field and weren’t supposed to have one at your disposal in the first place.

However, nowadays it’s very easy to find such products designed to be used at the comfort of your own home. Sounds comfy and cost efficient – a dream come true for many, right?

Well, while you might be casually browsing around the internet searching for the best fetal heart monitors, reading the manufacturer’s seemingly impressive product descriptions and other good things previous customers have had to say about the product, it’s our obligation to set the record straight and tell you the other side of the story; why using at home fetal heart rate monitors yourself is not exactly the best of ideas.

The only safe way to do this (both for your own safety and that of the baby you’re pregnant with) is to have your doctor or midwife operate the fetal heart monitor for you while you sit back and relax – just as you would usually do when getting an ultrasound scan.

Note: All of these apply to everyone reading who is not a professionally trained sonographer. If you are and you do have enough experience doing this, these obviously don’t apply to you anymore.

1) Accuracy

How can you be 100% sure that what you’re hearing through the monitor is actually your baby’s heart beats?

Unless you’ve received professional training to use one of these machines, there’s a good chance that you’ll misinterpret what you hear.

Many times, what you might think is your baby’s heartbeat is actually yours, or it’s just your stomach doing weird things.

2) Costly

If you’re interested in getting a fetal Doppler monitor because you think it’s going to save you money in the long run – think again.

If you want accurate readings, you’ll have to spend several hundred dollars on a sophisticated enough monitor for you to rely on.

How sophisticated, exactly? Think along the lines of something your practitioner has and uses.

The more popular monitors on the market today that go for cheap are nowhere near as accurate.

3) Decrease In Productivity

Let’s be real for a second here – it’s very tempting for us to do nothing all day long but rub some gel on our tummies, let that Doppler do its magic and take us to another world where we feel closest to our unborn babies.

But just take a moment to think about what this does to your overall productivity.

Not only will this eventually backfire on you and end up causing you lots of added (and unneeded) stress instead of the relief you were searching for when you first got the monitor, you’ll also end up not getting half the amount of work done throughout the day you could have without such constant distraction tempting you to waste time on it all day long.

There’s lots of responsibilities you have to take on while pregnant, regarding both changes your own body goes through at the time and your baby’s actual development, so spending too much time messing around with a fetal heart monitor will make it more difficult for you to get items on that to-do list checked off.

4) False Reassurance

While you might actually be hearing your baby’s heartbeat, you won’t be able to tell whether it’s normal or abnormal unless you’ve received professional training on how to do determine which is which.

What you hear and believe to be a normal heartbeat may not actually be the case, or their heart rate could be very off in comparison to their current gestational age.

In turn, time is not on your side here because the longer it takes you to get to the hospital for medical assistance and reassurance, the more likely it is for your pregnancy and baby to be at risk.

This is why it’s much better to rely on your physician to hear your baby’s heart beats, check up on their heart rate levels and rhythm, and determine with a high degree of accuracy whether everything’s normal or there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

5) Stressing Out For No Reason

On the other hand, it’s very easy for you to stress yourself out for no reason and enter panic mode at times just because you’re using a fetal heart monitor without receiving professional training on how to operate it properly.

It’s seen time and time again where mothers-to-be buy one of these monitors, get it to operate properly but can’t seem to get to hear their baby’s heartbeat even after endless tries, and enter panic mode – thinking that the worst has happened to the bundle of joy they’re expecting.

In reality, though, there’s a whole host of reasons for why you’re not able to hear your baby’s heartbeats through the monitor, none of which have anything to do with their life being in danger.

You might not be operating the monitor properly, your baby might be in a certain position that makes it impossible for the monitor to pick up their heartbeats, you may be trying to hear your baby’s heartbeats way before they’ve developed enough for this to even become possible (i.e before weeks 10 to 14), you might be taking certain medication at the time that’s affecting this, you might be a little bit (or drastically) overweight, and one of many other possible reasons.

Baby changing positions on you is a very common one, though, which is why your doctor or midwife feel around your tummy before they begin searching for baby’s heartbeat.

Unless you’ve received proper training on how to do so, it’s going to be difficult for you to keep up with the positional changes baby throws your way – sometimes even shifting from one side to another multiple times in a single day!

So, instead of subjecting yourself to all of this mental agony, leave it up to your doctor to determine how your pregnancy is developing with time, how the baby you’re carrying is doing and whether or not there’s anything that warrants you worrying about.

Even if you’re okay with subjecting yourself to all that stress and don’t mind it at all, it’s your responsibility as a mother to know that the stress you go through easily transfers to the baby you’re pregnant with and negatively affects them just as well.

If there’s something that causes complications to both your pregnancy and the development of your baby, it’s stress.

And we all know that during pregnancy, we’re already stressed out as it is – all the body changes we go through and experience are anything but easy to deal with! The last thing we need is another reason to stress out, we’ve got enough on our plate as it already is.

After all, there’s a reason why doctors advise you to do everything you can to avoid stress during this time.

6) Medical Complications

Unfortunately, reliance on what you hear from a fetal heart monitor can oftentimes be detrimental to your baby’s health and well being.

It happens all the time when mothers sense that something’s not quite right because it doesn’t really feel like normal – but instead of talking to a physician about it, they grab the fetal heart monitor, see for themselves that their baby’s heartbeat is A-okay, and dismiss the need to get checked.

In some very unfortunate cases, overly relying on a fetal heart monitor and determining that little baby’s fine on one’s own just because they’ve heard (or think they’ve heard) normal heart beats has resulted in miscarriages.

7) Exposure To Ultrasound Waves

The ultrasound waves your baby gets exposed to from using Doppler fetal heart monitors is something dangerous that you should be aware of.

If you want to be extra sure about this, feel free to ask your physician, and they’ll explain how exposure to ultrasound from time to time is not dangerous for babies, but exposure to ultrasound on a daily basis (and sometimes even multiple times a day) from the use of fetal heart monitors is actually very dangerous for them.

This may not be much of a problem with some of the more basic and cheaper heart beat monitors out there that don’t emit much ultrasound waves capable of affecting your pregnancy and damaging your baby’s development, but becomes a huge problem with some of the more advanced and expensive high-powered units.

Up until now, there’s been no scientific data that proves Doppler devices being harmful to babies because of the ultrasounds they emit.

However, not enough studies have been performed on the long run to prove that these devices have no sort of long-term negative effects on the babies subjected to them while still in their mother’s womb – especially the ones subjected to these devices very frequently (multiple times a day).

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather play it safe and avoid that kind of risk – it’s my responsibility as a parent to do so.

8) The FDA’s Advice

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearly requires a prescription for any kind of ultrasound to be performed, and advises against using at home monitors like this – ones that can be operated without a doctor.

When Can I Start Hearing My Baby’s Heart Beats?

While some mothers might want to experience this as soon as they test positive in a pregnancy test, the reality isn’t exactly so.

Some of the highest quality Fetal Dopplers enable you to listen to a baby’s heart beats between weeks 10 and 14 of a pregnancy.

Again, that’s just a general range that most professional Dopplers fall into.

If you’re using a more amateur home-based model, however, it can take longer than 14 weeks before your baby’s heart beats can get picked up.

What Should I Do Instead?

No matter how you look at it, there’s no better or more accurate test you can take than an ultrasound that’s performed by a professional and well trained sonographer.

Now, I know what you may be asking yourself; “but wait, if I should refrain from using a fetal heart monitor because of the dangerous ultrasound waves its exposes my baby to, shouldn’t I also be worried about the ultrasound waves my baby gets exposed to during an ultrasound scan?”.

Well, technically speaking, yes you should be worried. But why is this different than you exposing your baby to ultrasound waves at home?

For starters, ultrasound scans aren’t done on a daily basis. They’re only done from time to time and when there’s a need for one. On the other hand, some mothers check their baby’s heartbeat with the monitor every single passing day.

Also, an experienced and professionally trained sonographer knows what they’re doing and knows how to get the scan over with while exposing your baby to the least amount of ultrasound waves possible and still managing to get an accurate result.

Unless you’re an experienced and professionally trained sonographer (I know I’m not), you and I don’t know how to do this while exposing our babies to the least amount of ultrasound waves possible.

Besides, fetal heart monitoring is only a very small part that doctors rely on to keep tabs on how a patient’s pregnancy is going.

Many different tests and routine checkups are also done to make sure a pregnancy is developing as it should be, depending on the mother-to-be and what medical/health conditions she has at the time.

For example, pregnant women with diabetes and/or high blood pressure cannot only rely on a fetal heart monitor’s results – other tests need to be done to make sure these conditions aren’t affecting and hindering baby’s health, growth and development.

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