Listening to Your Baby's Heartbeat at Home

Listening to the baby's heart beat in pregnancy
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Listening to your baby's heartbeat is a special time in your pregnancy. Many women enjoy this part of the prenatal care appointments the most. You can listen to your baby's heartbeat at your prenatal visit, but you can also do so at home. There are some quick and simple solutions that are safe for baby and mom. Here are the most common questions and answers about listening to baby prenatally and how to hear his or her heartbeat at home.

What Can You Use to Hear the Heartbeat?

There are many products on the market that you can use to try to hear your baby's heartbeat in pregnancy. Here is a quick look at the types of devices that are most common.

ProductEase of UseWhen it WorksCost
StethoscopeAverage18-22 Weeks$10-80
FetoscopeAverage18-22 Weeks$25-90
Pinard HornComplicated18-22 Weeks$25-300
AmplifiersComplicateddepends$20-30
DopplerDepends8+ Weeks$150+
Fetal MonitorProfessional Use Only20+ WeeksProfessional Use Only

The easiest and least expensive route is the stethoscope or fetoscope. The stethoscope is more widely available, but the fetoscope is especially made for listening to babies, making it a bit better at hearing the heartbeat.

The Stethoscope

The stethoscope is a common medical symbol. We have all had someone listen to our heart or our lungs with this special listening device that amplifies your internal noises. This trusty device is also good for listening to babies in utero.

Typically you can hear the baby's heart beat at about 18 to 20 weeks, depending on maternal and fetal factors like the weight of mom, the position of your baby, and the location of the placenta.

The stethoscope can be purchased at most drug stores, any medical supply store, and many of the uniform stores that cater to medical personnel.

It will vary greatly with how well you can hear based solely on the quality of the product. There are also different types of stethoscopes, for example a pediatric stethoscope versus a cardiac stethoscope. Name brands such as Littman versus other less expensive brands may also effect the quality of the product.

Many practitioners, doctors, and midwives have lost the skill of using a normal stethoscope or a special stethoscope called a fetoscope on pregnant women. You may not see it used as often today since it doesn't use ultrasound technology.

The Pinard Horn

The Pinard Horn is an older fetal listening device. The flat end is placed on the ear of the practitioner while the horn part is used to move around the pregnant mother's abdomen. This is used to listen directly to the baby through the mother's body with no use of electricity or power.

The Pinard horn be used from about 18 to 20 weeks of pregnancy. It is not as common at prenatal care appointments.

The Fetoscope

The fetoscope is the modern combination of both the stethoscope and the Pinnard horn. It uses the practitioner's forehead to conduct sound and has a more modern look, being made from metal and plastic compared to the wooden Pinnard horn.

It does not use ultrasound. There are a couple of different varieties of fetoscopes around, including some that fit over the head for ease of use for the practitioner.

The fetoscope is designed to be used on a pregnant mom, so it is designed with hearing baby in mind. The lower end fetoscopes tend to work just as well as the more expensive brands. The main difference between the fetoscope and stethoscope is that most fetoscopes use the forehead to conduct sound to help you hear the baby, often giving better results to the user.

Some practitioner's like to use this at every visit starting from week 12, though many won't hear the heart beat that early.

This device takes skill at listening, but experienced users can differentiate what they are listening to. The sound of the baby's heart beat sounds like a watch under a pillow, while the placenta sounds more like a whooshing sound.

The Fetal Doppler Stethoscope

The Fetal Doppler uses ultrasound technology to bounce sound waves off the baby and return a representation of the fetal heartbeat. Some specialized devices can be used as early as eight weeks., though 12 weeks into pregnancy is a more normal time frame. The sound is usually that of galloping horses. Most prenatal care appointments will use the Doppler.

This device can be used by doctors or midwives. There are companies who sell or rent them in pregnancy for home use. Home use is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Fetal Monitor

The fetal monitor is sometimes used in prenatal care, though more often for late pregnancy fetal surveillance, like during the non-stress test, or in labor. This can be used with an external monitro or with an internal fetal monitor. It also has the ability to monitor contractions. It does use ultrasound technology and requires someone to stay with the machine while it operates.

Your doctor or midwife may have an old electronic fetal monitoring machine in their office simply to do these tests. Some can also be wireless, known as telemetry monitoring.

What Might Make Hearing the Baby Difficult? 

There are many factors that can effect how well you can hear the baby and they can vary from time to time. They include, but are not limited too:

Why Listen to the Baby's Heartbeat?

For some families it will provide reassurance between visits to your practitioner. For others it's merely a way of bonding with the baby. Children and dads love this and often look forward to it. And it's easy enough for even a small child to do.

Is Fetal Heart Rate Monitoring Safe?

This is a complicated question. Using the stethoscope, fetoscope, or Pinnard Horn pose no physical risks. Using a fetal doppler can potentially cause harm if overused, at least on a theoretical level, and is not recommended by the FDA. The use of a fetal monitor is typically confined to the hospital or medical practice setting.

There is also the potential risk of emotional or psychological harm. This comes into play when you don't hear the baby's heartbeat or when it is difficult to find. This may seem innocuous, but it can cause undue stress which is also not good for you in pregnancy.

A Word From Verywell

Listening to your baby's heartbeat can be comforting for many pregnant couples. Your doctor or midwife has a variety of tools that they can use at various points in pregnancy. Sometimes you may want to try to listen to your baby between prenatal care visits. Be sure to talk to your practitioner about the safety and accuracy of the methods available so that you don't cause yourself more anxiety than necessary.

Sources:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Fetal Heart Rate Monitoring During Labor. August 2011. 

Food and Drug Administration. Avoid Fetal "Keepsake" Images and Home Monitors. December 2014.

Gabbe SG. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017.

Obican SG, Khodak-Gelman S, Elmi A, Larsen JW, Friedman AM. First trimester dating by fetal heart rate assessment: a comparison with crown-rump length measurement. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2015 Jan;28(1):68-70. doi: 10.3109/14767058.2014.905531. Epub 2014 Apr 9.

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