Home dopplers: are they safe?

Home-use baby heartbeat monitors - or pregnancy heartbeat Dopplers - and apps are rising in popularity - but more and more experts are advising they shouldn't be used

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In a nutshell

No, home dopplers are not safe to use. While it’s important to note that using one won’t actually harm your baby, many experts have now said they don’t recommend them.

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The expert view

It can be tempting – and fun – to use one of the home Dopplers to listen to your baby, but they shouldn’t be used as reassurance if you’re worried about your baby’s movements.

“While it is safe for the baby and for you to use a home Doppler machine they can cause huge amounts of stress and anxiety if, for whatever reason, you cannot find a heartbeat,” explains MFM’s GP Dr Philippa Kaye.

“If you are feeling worried about your baby and feel the need to have a Doppler at home speak to your antenatal team about your anxieties.”

Could home dopplers be banned from sale?

Home dopplers are currently available to buy in the UK, although in July 2017 Mothercare announced that once its current stock of them had run out they would not be selling them anymore.

In October 2017, a Ten Minute Bill was passed unanimously proposing that home dopplers be banned. There will be a second reading of the motion in January 2018, and if passed, this could become law.

The MP bringing the Bill, Antoinette Sandbach, said: “I praise Mothercare for its welcome announcement earlier this year that once current stocks ran out, they would not sell any more foetal dopplers.

“That company recognises the concerns of healthcare professionals, and I hope that other businesses will follow suit, but in this age of Amazon, we cannot rely on the replication of such responsible behaviour by every single seller of dopplers. That is why there is a case for regulation.”

A foetal Doppler used by a GP or midwife during an antenatal appointment requires considerable training to use properly, according to the Royal College of Midwives.

It advises mums-to-be not to use them, as they can not only cause stress and raise blood pressure if it’s hard to find a heartbeat, but may also falsely reassure pregnant women that things are fine, even if they’re not.

This is because sometimes the Doppler can actually be picking up the mum’s heartbeat, or even the pulse of blood flow through the placenta.

Mums on our forum say

“The heart beat monitor was the best thing I bought. I can check on the baby anytime I like, just to put my mind at rest. You can hear the heat from 12 weeks so that’s when I got mine. Every time we go to find the heart beat, it hides for a few seconds and then there’s life. It’s amazing.” Mel1223

“i bought a baby sounds doppler with digital display at 14 weeks and am still heavily reliant on it (despite 8 scans lol as I’m still in my own clothes and have no bump and also not particularly a lot of movements…not strong ones anyway),” says Lauz_41.

“I  have never had a problem finding heartbeat and was told long as you are hearing it then should be reassured baby is ok in there… it’s been a bit of a life saver for me.”

What do other experts say about home dopplers?

Just a few months ago, midwives at the charity Tommy’s urged mums-to-be to be careful if using a home doppler device to monitor your unborn baby’s heartbeat.

Now charity Kicks Count has gone one step further and is calling for the machines to be banned. It has even started a petition to get its argument heard in Parliament.

The campaign seems to have support from the Royal College of Midwives, too, who say this:

“The RCM has concerns about the use of personal Doppler machines. We have two key concerns: firstly, the machines can lead to unnecessary stress for women when they are unable to find a heartbeat using the personal Doppler and secondly, that women may be falsely reassured by hearing what they think is their baby’s heartbeat when it is actually their own.

“The sound that is heard is not the real heart sound but the machine detecting heart movement, therefore picking up a maternal pulse or blood pumping through placenta could give false reassurance.

“Such reassurance could be dangerous as it may delay a woman in seeking advice from her midwife. Even if the mother has picked up the baby’s heartbeat this is not an indication that the baby is well.”

They go on to advise that the best way for a woman to monitor her baby’s wellbeing is to get to know her own baby’s usual pattern of movements and notice if there is any change.

“Being active – wriggling, kicking, rolling – is an indicator that the baby is well. Babies will have individual patterns that their mothers will begin to recognise as their pregnancy progresses – for example some babies are much more active when their mother is having a rest or in the evening or after a meal, while other babies have very active mornings.”

They also advise that where a woman is concerned her baby has been less active than usual that she should call her midwife or maternity unit to seek their advice.

Warnings against hand-held dopplers

Hand-held dopplers – which are sold as aids to help you hear your baby’s heartbeat while you’re pregnant – are growing in popularity. Some, like the Angelcare Movement and Sound Monitor, are designed to help detect your baby wriggling around in the womb, too.

And just days ago, here at the MFM office, we received a press release about a free ‘heartbeat listener’ app called Shell which is designed to do exactly the same thing.

But experts at Tommy’s – which funds research into pregnancy problems and helps parents with issues around pregnancy – have advised mums-to-be against using them.

What does Tommy’s say?

Kate Pinney, Midwifery Manager for Tommy’s Information Service, says:

“Hearing your baby’s heartbeat is precious and reassuring for many parents; but it is important that only midwives and trained health professionals use a doppler to listen in.

“When using a hand-held doppler, it is possible for there to be some confusion with the mother’s own heartbeat and the pulsing of the placenta, which can sound like the baby’s heartbeat. This means that, when you listen in, you can hear a reassuring ‘heartbeat’ but it may not be your baby’s heartbeat at all.”

Kate also points out that trying to listen for a heartbeat in the early stages of pregnancy could make you stress out when you really don’t need to:

“It is very difficult,” Kate says, “to listen to the baby’s heartbeat before about 14 to 16 weeks, so, if you are unable to hear anything, this may cause lots of unnecessary panic and anxiety.

“Keeping an eye on your baby’s movements [once you can feel them – usually some time between 16 and 24 weeks] is the best way for parents to monitor their baby’s wellbeing.

“And, if you have any concerns about your baby’s movements – whether they have slowed down or changed pattern – you must contact your maternity unit immediately to be monitored properly.”

The bottom line

If you have gone out and bought a doppler or a heartbeat listening app (and we totally get why loads of excited parents-to-be would want to), there’s no need to panic or dump it in the bin.

But it is definitely worth being aware that a home gadget is in no way a substitute for a midwife’s doppler being used in the hands of a professional.

So, if you can’t hear a heartbeat, it may be that you’re trying to listen too early on in your pregnancy.

And whatever sounds you’re picking up – or not – using a home Doppler or app, they aren’t necessarily an accurate indication of what’s really going on.

As Kate from Tommy’s says, monitoring your baby’s movements is the thing that matters when it comes to making sure your baby’s OK. Home dopplers and heartbeat listening apps can be fun but it’s best not to rely on them for reassurance about your baby’s health.

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