What If a Baby Doppler Shows No Heartbeat?

Obstetrician gynecologist checking fetal heartbeat with a Doppler
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A baby Doppler device may not always detect a fetal heartbeat in early pregnancy. Although some people may be able to hear their baby's heartbeat as early as 7 or 8 weeks, there are a lot of factors that contribute to when it actually becomes audible with a Doppler device. Even in a healthy pregnancy, you might not hear a heartbeat when you expect it.

In most cases, a fetal Doppler will be able to detect a heartbeat by the end of the first trimester (around 12 weeks). Some providers do not begin checking for the heartbeat with a Doppler device before then to avoid causing unnecessary worry.

What Is a Baby Doppler?

A fetal Doppler, also known as a baby Doppler, is a handheld ultrasound device used to detect a fetal heartbeat. The device detects movement through sound waves. It is traditionally used in a medical office by healthcare providers to hear your baby's heartbeat.

Your provider will use the Doppler wand along with some ultrasound gel against your abdomen. Most baby Dopplers have a digital screen, which displays the fetal heart rate number. At six weeks of pregnancy and beyond, the normal fetal heart rate is between 110 and 160 beats per minute, but it may vary slightly.

Why a Doppler Might Not Find a Heartbeat

If your provider did not find your baby's heartbeat with a handheld Doppler and you have not yet reached 12 weeks, have patience because it may just be too early. There are a variety of other reasons for not hearing a heartbeat with a baby Doppler, too.

Baby's Gestational Age

Gestation is how far along you are in your pregnancy. A doctor will usually use a transvaginal ultrasound in early pregnancy to visually see on a monitor how a fetus is developing. If your baby's gestational age has been miscalculated (perhaps you are not as far along as you had guessed), it's possible you won't detect a heartbeat with a Doppler just yet.

Position of the Placenta

The baby's heartbeat could be muffled depending on the location of the placenta. If you have an anterior placenta (a placenta that is located toward the anterior or "front" of the uterus), it could serve as an additional layer between the Doppler and the baby that prevents you from easily hearing them inside.

Position of the Uterus

A tilted uterus, also known as a tipped or retroverted uterus, can contribute to the inability to detect a fetal heartbeat. Retroverted simply means that the uterus is positioned toward the spine rather than horizontally over the bladder.

This position is a normal body formation that occurs in one in five women. While a retroverted uterus may initially make it hard to hear baby's heartbeat, as pregnancy progresses, the uterus will often turn toward its intended position.

Pregnancy Loss

If a doctor does not find a heartbeat during a fetal Doppler exam, particularly if they have heard one previously, it is possible you may be experiencing a miscarriage. There are other miscarriage symptoms of which to be aware, however. Your doctor may order further testing to determine exactly what is happening.

If you are past 12 weeks and your baby's heartbeat could not be detected using a fetal Doppler, your provider will likely recommend a fetal ultrasound (also known as a sonogram). This test will tell you whether or not there is cause for concern through the use of imaging.

Home Baby Doppler Cautions

The idea of being able to check in on your baby's heartbeat whenever you like can be extremely tempting, especially for expecting parents with high-risk pregnancies or those who are pregnant with a rainbow baby. It can be difficult to wait until the next routine prenatal visit to get reassurance that everything is OK. While fetal Dopplers are available over the counter, most experts caution against them.

For one, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against unregulated home use of fetal Dopplers. The FDA notes there are unknown long-term effects of such devices, and uncontrolled exposure could potentially be harmful.

Additionally, when a heartbeat monitor is used without a healthcare professional's supervision, it can lead to problems. For example, an expecting parent might not consult their doctor when they should because of the false sense of security provided by hearing what they believe is their baby's heartbeat.

But there is the issue of accuracy: You may think you're hearing baby's heartbeat with an at-home fetal Doppler when in fact, you could be hearing your own blood flow or that of the placenta. Conversely, without training, you may not easily find a heartbeat when there is one, which can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety. A trained healthcare professional can best recognize and interpret the sounds from a Doppler device.

With an at-home fetal Doppler, there's a chance you could be using it incorrectly, and so it should never be used as a replacement for a visit to your doctor or midwife. Before investing in a baby Doppler, talk to your provider about its risks versus rewards.

A Word From Verywell

Many expecting parents look forward to hearing their baby's heartbeat with a fetal Doppler at their prenatal visits, but the lack of an audible heartbeat—even for just a few moments—can cause a flood of negative feelings. In addition to having regular prenatal care and an open dialogue with your provider, knowing about the limitations of baby Doppler devices can ease any anxiety.

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Article Sources
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  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Fetal Heart Monitoring.

  2. Jacobson JD, Conaway B. Retroversion of the uterus. Medline Plus. Reviewed March 31, 2020.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Avoid Fetal "Keepsake" Images, Heartbeat Monitors. Updated December 16, 2014.

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