Hearing your baby’s heartbeat – enjoy responsibly


Nothing can describe the feeling of hearing your baby’s heartbeat for the first time, a confirmation that the fairly abstract little bundle of cells is indeed a human being. As the pregnancy continues, hearing your baby’s heartbeat also reassures you that all is well.

Firstly, how can one hear baby’s heartbeat?

There are three devices through which you can hear baby’s heartbeat:

  • During a routine sonar or ultrasound done at your antenatal visit.
  • With a Cardiotograph or CTG machine – this machine is used in hospital units and gives a printout of baby’s heart rate patterns that the midwife or doctor can interpret to confirm that baby is healthy
  • A Doppler is a handheld device with which you can hear baby’s heart

Nowadays parents can purchase their own Doppler. Being able to do so is very special and enables you to share this wonder with your partner and family. Being able to hear baby’s heartbeat may be especially reassuring for women who experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth in a previous pregnancy.

It is no wonder that our BabyWombWorld Fetal Doppler Heartbeat Monitor is one of our most popular products.

However, a Doppler for home use should not be seen as a medical device. Here are a few tips and things that you should know to ensure that you use this device safely.

When will I be able to hear my baby’s heartbeat? 

A baby’s heartbeat can usually be heard with a sonar from around 5,5 to 6 weeks pregnant. However, do not panic if this is not the case as you may not be quite as far along as you think, and most likely the heartbeat will be audible in another day or two.

With a Doppler you will most likely only be able to pick up baby’s heartbeat from 16 weeks in pregnancy. You will need to use an ultrasound gel on your tummy, which you can get at most hospital pharmacies.

So what are heart rate patterns and what do they mean?

From around 25 weeks of pregnancy when baby becomes viable to live, baby’s heart rate pattern is a key method in determining baby’s well-being. It is more accurate than a sonar which can show baby’s growth and certain abnormalities, but doesn’t tell us how baby is doing at this moment.

During a CTG baby’s heartrate patterns and any contractions of the uterus are measured with two probes strapped around your tummy. CTG’s will be done routinely if you are admitted in hospital for any complication in pregnancy or it may be requested if you have a specific worry, for example when you are concerned that your baby is not moving well.

When evaluating a heart rate pattern, the midwife or doctor will consider the following:

  • The baseline of the heart rate – 110-160 beats per minute is considered normal.
  • Heart rate variability – this refers to the amount of beats per minute that the heart rate moves up and down from the baseline. A healthy heart rate will vary from the baseline with at least 5 beats per minute.
  • Accelerations – these are upwards ‘jumps’ from the baseline and tells us that baby is doing well. You can hear your baby’s heart rate going up to levels as high as 180 beats per minute.
  • Decelerations – these are the opposite of accelerations and are dips from the baseline. Decelerations are a sign of fetal distress and might result in an emergency caesarean section.

It takes lots of training and experience to accurately interpret a CTG printout. Failing to do so correctly can have dire consequences.

What should you be aware of when using a fetal heart rate monitor?

  • Never decide for yourself that baby is doing well only because you managed to hear a heartbeat. If it feels as if baby is not moving well you should always contact your doctor or midwife.
  • At the same time, don’t panic if you do not manage to hear the baby’s heartbeat. Baby may just be lying in a different position. Most home fetal dopplers are not the same quality as hospital equipment which cost far more, and it is possibly just malfunctioning. Contact your doctor or midwife so that a proper CTG can be arranged, especially if your baby is moving less than usual.

Can a Doppler harm baby?

Although there is no sure evidence showing that ultrasound is harmful in pregnancy, it is known to slightly heat body tissue and in some cases may cause small bubbles in certain tissues. The full effect of this is not known. CTG machines and dopplers also use ultrasound technology.  Although it is unlikely to cause harm during quick sonars done at routine antenatal visits, there is concern when sonars or Dopplers are used regularly for long periods at a time.

A Doppler should not be used every single day and be sure to keep it on for short periods at a time only.

Remember to monitor your baby’s movement

When all is said and done, being aware of your baby’s movement remains your biggest tool in determining baby’s well-being. Your baby should move at least 5 times in an hour. If it feels like your baby is moving less than usual, drink a glass of cold water and lie down comfortably. If you feel less than 5 movements per hour (or ten movements over two hours) you should immediately contact your midwife or doctor who will arrange a CTG to ensure that baby is doing well.

Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.

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