Government and professional bodies in the UK strongly advise against the use of fetal dopplers by parents in the home. The Medicines & Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have published updated guidelines on this, which are supported by a statement from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Fetal dopplers are hand-held ultrasound devices that use soundwaves to listen to a baby’s heartbeat. They have been used for years by health care professionals to listen to a baby’s heartbeat. But, over the past few years, companies have been advertising and selling them to parents for home use. Some companies also hire out ultrasound machines, which is also of concern.
The advice follows growing concerns from some midwives, doctors and others about the safety of this technology. The RCOG focus on the concern that home use of fetal dopplers can lead to false reassurance. If parents are concerned about a baby, they should seek advice from a midwife or doctor rather than attempting to use this technology to try to listen to the baby’s heartbeat.
This isn’t an attempt to ‘protect’ professional knowledge. The concerns about the at-home use of fetal dopplers are very real.
Doppler ultrasound can be very useful when employed judiciously. However, we don’t know enough about whether frequent use or overuse is harmful to babies. So it should be reserved for times of genuine medical benefit (and even then only with the mother’s informed consent, because some women don’t want it used at all) and certainly not used routinely or recreationally. This is a key reason why some midwives, doctors and others are concerned about the sale of hand-held dopplers and the hiring of ultrasound machines to parents-to-be for home use or even entertainment. Safety information is not always in line with current evidence and babies are being unnecessarily exposed to technologies that may cause harm, especially if not used correctly.
The second concern is that, in untrained hands, fetal dopplers may give false reassurance. In other words, they can lead parents to think that all is well when it might not be. There are a number of ways in which false reassurance may occur. The machine may pick up the mother’s heartbeat rather than the baby’s. The placenta may also be heard. In the case of multiple pregnancy (which may or may not be known about; surprise twins do still occur!) then this can further confuse the situation. And, as is often the case in midwifery and medicine, one test or technology may not be enough to get a full picture of wellbeing. Childbirth educator Vicki Hobbs has written an in-depth blog post about this here. In summary, as the RCOG spokesperson noted:
“We recommend that women monitor their baby’s movements during pregnancy as a reduction or pattern change in movement can indicate that the baby is unwell.” (RCOG)
There is an additional concern about the undermining of parents’ knowledge and confidence. Some of the advertising for these products shows happy actors claiming that owning such a device made them feel reassured. In reality, some parents find that having a fetal doppler at home actually makes them feel more anxious. Some parents have said that they found they wanted to listen in more and more frequently. Others said they became concerned about the tiniest change. This can undermine people’s trust in their own bodies and cause unnecessary worry.
As a midwife, I see women develop amazing ways of being in touch with their bodies and their babies. But this can be undermined by the use of such technologies. Professor Emerita Mavis Kirkham has also been concerned about the at home use of fetal dopplers for some time. As an expert researcher, she points out that we have never really paid much attention to researching the communication between a mother and her unborn baby. “Having the machine is a really crude diversion from developing your own skills and intuition,” she says.
The key issue, as the RCOG explain in their statement, is that seeking professional advice from a qualified midwife or doctor is best. This sentiment is echoed by professional and government bodies in other countries too.
#12 Don’t: Overuse a Fetal Doppler
Once you hear your baby’s heartbeat, you might want to hear it all the time. This can lead to a common question: “Can you overuse a fetal doppler?”
First, we’ll address this question in terms of safety.
Fetal dopplers use similar technology to ultrasound machines. Since the 1950s, diagnostic ultrasound has been used without negative side effects. Also, consider that your at home fetal doppler is a lot less powerful than hospital ultrasound machines. Since the waves emitted are lower, we can assume the risk would be even lower.
There’s another factor to keep in mind though: How often are you using your fetal doppler at home? Ultrasound technology is only used during appointments, which is typically only every few weeks during pregnancy. That’s a lot less frequent than you may be using your fetal doppler at home, so it’s another thing to keep in mind.
It’s a good idea to be mindful of your sessions. While there’s no research to indicate risks, you should not obsessively use any device unless repetitive use is recommended by a doctor.
Another reason you shouldn’t overuse a fetal doppler is that it could create anxiety for some people. Although it commonly provides reassurance to parents and is a positive experience, it may create worry if you use it too much.
If you have anxiety after not checking your baby for a few hours, put it away for a while. Instead, focus on kicks and movement to gauge your baby’s health. When you feel less anxious, you can return to the doppler as a bonding tool and use it less frequently.
#11 Don’t Panic
If it’s your first time using a doppler, consider it practice. You may or may not find a heartbeat right away. You may or may not be using it correctly. That’s okay—you’ll learn after a few sessions. Try not to feel anxious or frustrated.
If you normally hear your baby using your fetal doppler and you can’t right now, it can be worrisome. Try not to panic though. Consider that there’s several non-health-related reasons why you might not be detecting your baby. For example, if your baby moved to a new position, it may be harder to hear. Another possibility is that your baby is too small. While you may detect her sometimes, it could be unreliable until she grows bigger
Typically, if you don’t detect a heartbeat, you should put the fetal doppler away and try another day. However, if you’re concerned, especially if it’s accompanied by other signs, you should talk to your doctor right away. For example, if you’ve been counting kicks and you haven’t felt any today, you should seek urgent care.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s worth remembering that you aren’t a trained medical professional. The fetal doppler can provide reassurance and be a fun bonding tool, but it’s not intended for the average person to diagnose medical issues. If you suspect there’s an issue, you could be wrong—only a healthcare professional can confirm it.
DON’T Do This: Fetal Doppler for Home Use
New to fetal dopplers for home use? There’s a few things you should know before you get started. Avoid these new user pitfalls to detect the clearest heartbeat every time.
Can you use the fetal Doppler too much?
There isn’t evidence that using them is harmful, but they haven’t been studied long term. The FDA notes that using them too much — without medical supervision — could pose risks to your baby’s development. The bottom line is they should be used only if there is a medical need.
How often is too often to use a fetal Doppler?
Can a fetal Doppler cause miscarriage?
Do fetal dopplers give off radiation?