Fetal Dopplers: Are They Safe For Babies?

Fetal dopplers are slowly gaining the attention of expecting mothers everywhere. The use of home dopplers has increased significantly in the past few years - this also affected their price on the market, making them more and more affordable. In fact, we’ve reached the point where you can get a home fetal doppler in just under $100. 

The popularity of fetal dopplers shouldn’t be that surprising though. They’re pretty intriguing machines, allowing pregnant women to listen to their baby’s heartbeat whenever they please, without having to make that extra mile to their gynecologist’s office. It saves you time and energy and lets you have that extra bonding moment while your little one is still in the belly - all from the comfort of your own home. Some expecting mothers also consider it as a means of controlling or diagnosing a potential miscarriage. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the desire to bond and connect with the baby, combined with the anxiety of potential loss and complications during pregnancy has made mothers more and more interested in at-home fetal dopplers. It’s also pretty normal that, before the actual purchase, you’ll have a ton of questions concerning these machines. Is there any benefit in using fetal dopplers? Are they safe to use at home? What are the benefits, and what are the risks of using them? 

These are some of the most frequent questions that mothers want answered. But, as with every other machine, the fetal doppler can become quite useless in untrained hands, or it can give you a false sense of security or cause unnecessary alarms. 
Imagine you set it up wrongly and start hearing your own heartbeat instead of your little one’s,  or imagine if you don’t hear a heartbeat at all! All of this can be very stressful for a pregnant woman and it goes without saying that pregnant women shouldn’t go through unnecessary stressful situations and should focus only on their and their baby’s health. That’s why in this article we’re going to try to answer all the important questions concerning the home fetal dopplers, and of course, come to the conclusion of whether they’re safe to use or not. 

What is a Fetal Doppler?

First, let’s go over the fetal dopplers themselves. 

Home fetal dopplers or sometimes also called pocket fetal dopplers are portable, handheld devices that help you monitor and hear your baby’s heartbeat. They do this by sending soundwaves through the skin and tissue, searching for movement. When this movement is detected, the soundwaves bounce back and create a pattern which is then recorded by the fetal doppler and played back for you. As we mentioned earlier, nowadays fetal dopplers can be found in local pharmacies in under $100. 

Fetal dopplers are marketed as a good way to listen to your baby’s heartbeat from early on in pregnancy, something that will reassure the worried moms-to-be. Being able to track your baby’s heart at all times is a very enticing thought, especially to pregnant women who want to bond with their child as soon as possible, even while still in the belly. 

However, those that aren’t adept in the nuisances of such machines can very easily confuse the home fetal dopplers with the Doppler ultrasound machine. This machine is used by gynecologists around the eight week of pregnancy to check on the baby’s heartbeat (the baby’s heart begins to beat by the end of week 6), and also to confirm the due date in the later stages of pregnancy. 

Home Fetal Dopplers VS. The Doppler Ultrasound Machine

So what would be the main difference between these two machines? Well, for starters, the Doppler ultrasound used in your gynecologist's office uses sound waves with higher frequency, which makes it more reliable and more accurate in its readings. This version of the Doppler device also provides an image of your baby, while the home fetal Doppler can only give you sound. Nevertheless, it all comes down to the fact that regardless of the type of the Doppler machine, they should all be used by trained professionals. 

Trained healthcare providers have lots of experience in monitoring mothers and babies and identifying any potential abnormalities during pregnancy and the behavior of the baby inside the belly. Mothers with fetal Dopplers at home can’t really have the same level of professionalism or experience, nor the same sophisticated apparatus (like the Doppler ultrasound machine), which means that a lot of the important nuances in the pregnancy monitoring process can be lost when they’re done at home. 

Are Fetal Dopplers Safe to Use? 

Now we’ve finally come down to the most pertinent question in this article. The answer is that yes, they are safe to use, but in the hands of medical professionals. When used on their own hand by mothers themselves, well, that’s when the question gets a little bit more complicated. 

The pocket fetal Dopplers use the same technology as the Doppler ultrasound machine - high-frequency sound waves, although the ultrasound machine in your gynecologist's office uses soundwaves with a somewhat higher frequency than the pocket one. Even though ultrasound technology has never been proved to be harmful or dangerous for pregnant women, still certain measures of precaution should be taken into consideration. Usually, healthy pregnant women receive two ultrasound scans in the course of their pregnancy (the same amount is also recommended by the ACOG, the leading organization of obstetricians in the US). 

A bit of a problem is that ultrasound waves can heat tissue and doctors are sometimes worried that repeated heatings of the tissue might somehow affect the development of the fetus. This is the reason why the FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the US) advises against the use of home fetal dopplers. Yes, it’s true that pocket dopplers are sometimes utilized by midwives or obstetricians during certain prenatal appointments - but they’re usually used for two minutes at most, every 2-6 weeks. 

In fact, the FDA has been vocal against the use of pocket fetal dopplers at home since 2014, saying how these devices are marketed as “prescription devices” which means they should primarily be used by trained professionals. If the product is obtained over the counter and used by one’s own hand, without any consultation with a proper healthcare professional, this might lead to omissions and oversight and can pose a risk both for the mother and baby. 

These are the most important reasons why you shouldn’t use a fetal doppler at home, on your own hand: 

It’s safe to say that the risk of using the home fetal Dopplers is not the technology itself, but the improper use of it, which can also lead to misinterpretation of the fetal heart rate. This is why they’re the safest to use when they’re in the hands of healthcare providers such as your obstetrician, nurse or midwife. 

The dopplers actually sense different kinds of movements, some stemming from the umbilical cord, some from the placenta or even the mother’s heart, which is, in fact, something that a lot of moms hear when using the home fetal doppler. 

Other Ways to Monitor Baby Health at Home 

The fetal doppler is not the only means with which you can monitor the fetal health from your own home. 

If you’re already beyond the first half of your pregnancy, starting from the third trimester (or at 28 weeks), you can start tracking the fetal movement by monitoring and counting their kicks (for example, what time and how long does it take for your baby to get to 10 movements). 

Doing the kick counts will help you recognize a unique pattern in your baby’s movements, which further on will be also helpful in noticing any changes from the norm of that pattern. Knowing that your baby is moving properly and expectedly means that they’re doing well. Babies who are stressed or are being oxygen starved will slow down their movements in order to conserve energy. If you notice something like this, contact your doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible, so they can correctly determine what’s wrong with your baby and prevent any potential, more serious outcomes. 

As an addition to the fetal kick counts, it’s also recommended that you go regularly to the scheduled prenatal appointments and ultrasound sessions. If you feel or a worried that your baby isn’t moving or is straying from its usual movement, you should definitely call your doctor for advice. 

And even though it might sound a bit abstract and ungrounded in science, maternal instincts are also something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Don’t hesitate to build confidence in yourself and in the ways you relate to your baby during pregnancy. Tuning into your maternal instincts is something you should do without fear of being judged. Trust your instincts and react to your doctor if you feel something’s going wrong. 

Ways of Bonding With Your Baby

Having the home fetal doppler with which you can hear your baby’s heartbeat at all times is not the only means to bond with your child. In fact, as we saw earlier, this might not be the best means. But the need is still there and many expecting moms search for ways to feel more connected with the little being that’s growing inside of them. 

Women who face challenging pregnancies or have endured previous losses and find it harder or are hesitant to connect may want to reach for options that will allow them to easily bond with their baby. We know that precisely because of this the home fetal doppler is a very tempting option, but there are other ways as well that will prove more beneficial in the long run. 

There are, for example, lots of prenatal exercises that pregnant women can take. They can also do yoga, which can be a great way of focusing on your pregnancy. You can also try having a journal throughout parts or the whole course of your pregnancy, or you can try writing to the baby-to-come. You can also take childbirth classes, going for prenatal massages, and do other activities that involve focusing on relaxation techniques while being pregnant. Part of their focus is also the baby inside, which is what makes them great bonding options. 

But, if you still don’t feel particularly close to the baby inside you before giving birth, no worries. A lot of great mothers don’t initially feel a bond or connection during their pregnancy - a lot of those important feelings come with the birth itself and immediately afterward when you’re holding them safe and warm in your arms. Just as with any other relationship, take your time to bond and connect with your little one, without judging yourself or being anxious about your feelings. 

As with most pregnancy-related choices, the use of the home fetal doppler is reduced to the benefit vs. risk relation. You should always discuss your concerns about your pregnancy with your obstetrician and midwife. Even though the home doppler is an appealing device, and seems like it’s very easy to use and doesn’t require much training, we’ve seen that it isn’t really so. That’s why before venturing to purchase any such options, it’s always good to consider their limitations and their potential risks because you definitely don’t want to spend money on something that you thought will reduce stress and then end up feeling even more anxious.