How to Listen to Baby's Heartbeat in Pregnancy

The Stethoscope

Pregnant woman listening to her baby with a stethoscope
Photo © Harald Eisenberger / LOOK-foto/Getty Images

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. And yet there are a variety of ways that you can listen to your baby in pregnancy. Here are a few of the most popular ways to hear your baby's heart beat in pregnancy.

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 18-20 weeks, depending on maternal and fetal factors (weight of mom, the position of your baby, the location of the placenta, etc.).

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 this used as often today. This method doesn't use ultrasound technology.

The Pinard Horn

This is a type of fetoscope for listening to baby's heart beat in pregnancy.
Pinnard Horn. Photo © iStockPhoto

The Pinard Horn is an older fetal listening device. The flat end is placed on the doctor or midwife's ear 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.

This can be used from about 18-20 weeks of pregnancy as well. This is not as common at prenatal care appointments, though it does not use ultrasound technology.


Fetoscope - Hearing Baby's Heart Beat in Pregnancy
Fetoscope. Photo © iStockPhoto

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 to the whole device, 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.

Some practitioner's like to use this at every visit from about week 12, though many won't hear the heart beat that early. This device takes a skill at listening, but when practiced properly a doctor or midwife can tell the baby from a placenta with this device. The sound of the baby's heart beat sounds like a watch under a pillow.

Some models also attach the listening device over the head of the wearer. This allows one to be more hands-free, particularly during a birth.

Fetal Doppler Stethoscope

This is a device used to listen to your baby's heart beat in pregnancy.
Fetal Doppler. Photo © iStockPhoto

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. (You can hear a baby's heartbeat via doppler here.) Most prenatal care appointments will use the Doppler than any other method. It can also be used earlier than some of the more traditional fetoscopes.

This device can be used by doctors or midwives. There are companies who sell or rent them in pregnancy for home use. This is not an approved use according to the FDA.

The Fetal Monitor

This is an external fetal monitor used to listen to baby in labor.
External Fetal Monitor. Photo (c) iStockPhoto

The fetal monitor is sometimes used in prenatal care, though more often for late pregnancy fetal surveillance like the non-stress test or in labor. This can be done with the external monitor as seen in the photo, or with an internal fetal monitor. It also has the ability to monitor contractions. It does use ultrasound technology and does not require someone to stay with the machine while it operates. This is not always a benefit for women and their families.

Your doctor or midwife may have an old electronic fetal monitoring machine in their office simply to do these tests. This may or may not look like the fancier versions found in many labor and delivery suites in the hospitals and in some birth centers. Some can also be wireless, known as telemetry monitoring.

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