Pregnant Women Are Using Fetal Heart Monitors at Home, and Doctors Aren’t Pleased

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Fetal heart monitors are a wonderful piece of technology, and it’s a real trip to hear your fetus’ hearbeat for the first time, but fetal heart monitors are not toys. They’re medical devices that require a lot of training and experience to use properly, and that’s why some doctors are concerned about the growing trend of selling them over the counter to expectant couples who want to use them for fun or for at-home medical care.

According to Bustle, some people are using fetal heart monitors at home, both to just listen to their babies’ heartbeats for fun and feels, and to reassure themselves that everything is OK in there.

It’s easy to see how that would be reassuring. My partner is a deeply neurotic, paranoid type who would definitely have bought one and made me wear it 24/7 if he’d known we could have.  But fetal heart monitors aren’t simple tools. An untrained person can easily strap on a fetal heart monitor and hear nothing, which can cause panic and stress even if it’s just that the monitor is on the wrong way. Conversely, a person can put on a fetal heart monitor and hear all kinds of things that sound like a heartbeat because everything in a person’s body makes noise, and that could falsely reassure someone that everything is OK.

Nurses and doctors get a lot of training in using and interpreting the results of a fetal heart monitor. One older nurse once put a fetal heart monitor on me and said, “Oh, it’s a girl!” then paused in a panic because she didn’t know if maybe I was waiting to be surprised. I said no, I knew it was probably a girl. That was pretty cool, though, because she’d been at that long enough that she could predict a baby’s sex just based on the heart rate. (Apparently girls tend to have faster heart rates in utero, according to that nurse.)

Emily Hutton of UK-based stillbirth charity called Kicks Count has started a petition to ban the over-the-counter sale of fetal heart monitors in the UK in part because of concerns that untrained parents could use them for self-diagnosis and be lulled into thinking that everything is OK when it is not. A person who was suspicious of a potential problem might put on a fetal heart monitor, hear something that sounds like a heartbeat, and assume everything is fine and their worry was just paranoia.

“The placenta and the mother’s heartbeat can both easily be mistaken for a fetal heartbeat. In untrained hands, it is more likely that blood flow through the placenta or the maternal aorta will be heard,” said Hutton, who says she knows of at least one stillbirth that may have been preventable if the parents had gone to the doctor instead of listening to their OTC fetal heart monitor.

Also, parents listening on a fetal heart monitor are not likely to notice things that might indicate problems, like a speeding up or a change in heart rate.

If someone wants to buy a fetal heart monitor just to get the warm fuzzy feelings of hearing their baby’s heart rate, that’s cute and pretty harmless. (Even if they might just be listening to their own heartbeat by mistake.) But they definitely should not be used for medical purposes or self-diagnosis by people who have no experience with them. Nurses, midwives, and doctors know what they’re doing. Leave the diagnostics to them.

(Image: iStockPhoto / bukharova)