The first time you hear your baby’s heartbeat is a magical moment! I could just picture that little bundle of life that was growing inside me, and I couldn’t wait to meet him!
So if a fetal heart monitor can provide such joy and reassurance, why is it so important to leave them to the professionals?
What are fetal heart monitors?
You may also have heard them referred to as a doppler or a baby heartbeat monitor.
Since the late 1950s, these handheld devices have been used to allow us to listen to babies’ heartbeats inside the womb.
They use sound waves to listen to your baby’s heartbeat.
Since they’re electronic, this means that everyone in the room (mom included!) gets a listen, whereas fetal stethoscopes only allowed the doctor or midwife to hear what was going on in there!
How are they used?
When your midwife or doctor uses a doppler, you’ll be asked to lie on the bed or couch.
You won’t need to undress, but you’ll have to pull up your top to around chest level. You’ll also most likely need to unzip and pull down your jeans a little too.
(Don’t make the mistake of wearing a dress like I did, or you’ll have to lie back with your undies on display! Not that I really cared by 35 weeks pregnant and in 80-degree heat!)
The health professional will then squirt a cold jelly-like gel onto your tummy. This gel acts as a coupling agent and helps reduce the static sound when listening to your little one.
The Doppler is then placed on top of the clear gel as the monitor is moved around to find the heartbeat.
Is it safe?
Absolutely. If your doctor or midwife is using the fetal heart monitor, there is no cause for concern at all.
You and baby are both completely safe.
So why should I steer clear?
Despite being intended for use by medical professionals, there has been a rise in products targeted for home use.
So, just why is this really not a good idea?
If you’re used to using your doppler each day to listen in on what your little one is up to, you could get a shock if you tune in one day to find the volume turned off!
If you cannot find your baby’s heartbeat it will understandably send you into a panic.
There could be lots of reasons why you cannot find the heartbeat yourself (see #2 and #4) which don’t necessarily mean anything is wrong.
This can lead to hoards of pregnant ladies rushing to their doctors unnecessarily, when actually there are much better ways for moms to monitor if all is well.
Baby has changed position.
When you visit your midwife, they will feel your tummy first in order to determine how your baby is positioned. They will then use this as a starting point to find baby’s heartbeat.
Aimlessly searching around your own tummy for baby (who may well have decided to dance their way to the other side of your belly than yesterday!) is a recipe for panic!
Apart from the real safety concern (see #5) this was the main reason I politely declined when a friend offered to lend me her at-home Doppler.
If I’d have had access to one, I’m sure I’d have been constantly been squirting that gel and doing the doppler dance!
You don’t need that added stress on top of everything else that pregnancy is throwing at you!
Knowing what to listen for.
Typically, baby’s heart begins to beat at the end of the 5th week.
The heart rate starts at the same rate as the mother’s: about 80-85 beats per minute (BPM). It will then increase by about 3 beats per minute per day during that first month.
By 9 weeks it’s likely to be around 175bpm!
The point is that even if we do manage to pick up a heart beat with an at-home doppler, we need to know what we’re listening for. This is where #5 really comes in.
If you use a doppler and find your baby’s heartbeat, you’re likely to think that everything is perfectly fine. The sad truth is that this may not be the case.
Trained midwives and doctors will know what the heartbeat of your baby should be sounding like depending on their current gestational age.
Misunderstanding what we hear on at-home dopplers could delay our visit to the hospital which could have devastating consequences.
Let’s put it this way: if you thought someone was having a stroke, you would not delay calling an ambulance simply because you could still feel their pulse!
It’s always best to be assessed by a qualified professional.
So if not a doppler, what should I be using?
The best way for a pregnant momma to monitor if all is well with baby is by keeping a track of their movements.
Advice on this differs depending on the organization you listen to.
Both Countthekicks.org and The American Pregnancy Association cite The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) as suggesting that moms-to-be count kicks from their third trimester and that most babies will usually make ten movements in two hours.
(Note ‘movements.’ These could be rolling, kicking or swishing but do not include hiccups).
However, Madeformums points out that this is really pretty outdated advice now.
Every baby is different!
You can expect to start feeling you baby move anytime from about 16 to 22 weeks.
Second-time moms are likely to feel their baby a little sooner than first-time moms.
If you haven’t felt anything by 22 weeks, don’t panic! Just give your doctor or midwife a call so they can put your mind at rest.
When you start to feel your baby move, you will likely begin to notice a pattern which is individual to them.
Maybe you feel them more in the morning, perhaps straight after your lunch! My little boy seemed to come to life just as I lay down to sleep each night!
You’ll begin to realize how many movements are typical for your baby, and this is what you should be looking out for each day, rather than a set number of kicks.
What about as baby get bigger?
Bellybelly points out that after 36 weeks, baby is so big that they have much less room for huge kicks and big movements.
It often used to be said that this meant you should expect to feel a reduction in movements towards the end of pregnancy.
Now that is not considered to be the case. You should still feel baby move a similar amount each day, but perhaps they will be gentle nudges and pushes rather than a huge roly-poly!
I haven’t felt baby in a while. Is there anything else I can try?
Here are a few things to try to get little one moving:
- Have a sugary snack.
- Try a cold drink.
- Do a few jumping jacks! (Just a few!)
- Have a lie-down.
- Play some music
When should I seek reassurance?
If you’ve tried all of the above and haven’t felt your little one move in a while, then give your doctor or midwife a call.
Living in the UK, with our state-funded National Health Service, I was very aware that the midwives were already so, so busy. I was worried about being a nuisance and that I might be wasting their time.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
On the two occasions that I was worried that my little one had gone a little quiet, the midwives I met with were wonderful. They put me 100% at ease and told me that I’d done exactly the right thing by giving them a call.
They even finished (both times) by telling me to come back again if I had any further concerns at all.
And guess what? Our little boy was absolutely fine on both occasions! But boy am I glad I went in to put my mind at ease!