Using a Baby Doppler After a Miscarriage or Stillbirth

Pros and Cons

Doctor listens to baby's heartbeat
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No matter how much you want a baby, facing pregnancy after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or other loss can be nerve-wracking. Dealing with a loss steals your innocence about pregnancy; it's not uncommon to face debilitating anxiety during a new pregnancy when you have a negative experience with a previous one.

One way that some women cope with the stress and anxiety of pregnancy after loss is to rent or buy a Doppler-based fetal heart rate monitor (also known as a baby doppler). The monitors can cost hundreds of dollars to purchase, but online retailers offer them for rent in the range of $20 per month, or for a flat fee for the duration of a pregnancy. Most retailers require a prescription from a physician in compliance with FDA regulations.

Some doctors feel that using baby dopplers at home is a great way for women to reassure themselves that everything is OK and reduce anxiety. Others are skeptical or outright opposed to the practice for fear that the devices will either increase anxiety or provide false reassurances. Both sides have valid points.

Background Information on Baby Dopplers

Baby dopplers are typically hand-held devices that use ultrasound waves to detect a developing baby's heartbeat from outside the mother's abdomen. Usually, the devices can detect the heartbeat starting around the seventh to the twelfth week of pregnancy (based on the last menstrual period), though there is a lot of variation based on the individual.

Physicians and midwives often use Doppler devices to monitor the baby's heart rate as a standard part of prenatal care. Detecting the baby's heartbeat is reassuring to moms but also provides the physician with information that helps in tracking the baby's development.

Doppler fetal heart monitors are FDA-approved (assuming you have a physician to advise you on use) and considered safe.

Baby Dopplers Pros

Baby dopplers can be empowering for women, particularly those facing pregnancy after a miscarriage or stillbirth. In the months of pregnancy before being able to feel the baby kicking, the Doppler devices can provide instant reassurance that the baby's heart is still beating.

Naysayers sometimes insist that women should just call their medical practitioners for a fetal heart monitor scan done in the doctor's office rather than try to play doctor at home. But the anxiety of pregnancy after a loss is often recurring and not always grounded in rational thinking—something pregnant women themselves often realize. A home-use heart rate monitor can be used anytime and anywhere anxiety strikes, whether that's in the middle of the night or in the office during a workday.

In such instances, finding the heartbeat can allow the woman to return to her day-to-day life feeling reassured rather than having a nagging worry that interferes with her ability to concentrate on her activities. In practicality, few women can call their doctors' offices every time they are worried and even fewer likely have doctors who have the scheduling flexibility to offer fetal heart rate checks at short notice every time a pregnant woman is feeling worried.

This is not to mention that women might feel self-conscious and afraid of being a pest, causing them to sit at home and face the stress rather than ask to come in for the third time in a week to hear the heartbeat in the doctor's office. Stress in pregnancy is not good for the mother or the baby.

Fetal heart rate monitors appear to be safe, and they are easy to use for most women. Women do need to understand that hearing a heartbeat is not an absolute certainty that everything will be fine with the pregnancy, that changed fetal positions and other factors could affect the ability to find the heart rate, and that they need to call their doctors whenever in doubt. But assuming that understanding, using heart rate monitors does not hurt anyone and can help a great deal with the stress and anxiety of pregnancy after miscarriage or stillbirth.

Baby Dopplers Cons

Fetal heart rate monitors are medical devices that are intended for use by medical professionals. Consumers do not always have the training or knowledge to use the devices and/or interpret the information that they get from them. In some cases, this could lead to patients not seeking medical care when they need it.

Women risk becoming unnecessarily anxious if they rent or buy fetal heart rate devices early in pregnancy and are unable to locate the heartbeat. Individual factors like body shape and location of the placenta can greatly affect how early the fetal heart rate monitor can pick up the baby's heartbeat.

Not detecting the baby's heartbeat at eight or nine weeks of pregnancy does not mean that a woman has miscarried; she may not hear the heartbeat with the device until 12 weeks even though everything is perfectly fine. A woman may also find the heartbeat one time and then not find it the next time, perhaps due to a position change or lack of experience (not knowing where to look), and this could lead to unnecessary stress.

Later in pregnancy (such as in the third trimester), women who notice that their babies aren't moving as much as usual might decide not to call the doctor after finding a heartbeat on a heart rate monitor—not understanding that finding a heartbeat does not necessarily mean everything is fine. The device could provide false reassurance, leading women to not call their doctors in instances when it would be a good idea to do so.

Finally, some might say the jury is still out on ultrasound safety. Most studies have found ultrasound to be safe, but one study did link ultrasound use to changes in the developing baby's brain cells. Although few doctors are concerned about judicious use of ultrasound for a clear medical purpose, some worry that unlimited exposure to ultrasound through consumer devices could have consequences.

Where Baby Dopplers Stand

Right now, women have fairly easy access to fetal heart rate monitoring devices through online retailers. Most of the merchants offering the fetal heart monitors require physician approval and guidance before renting or purchasing the devices.

If you are considering using a baby doppler, do discuss the matter with a trusted healthcare provider. Consider whether the monitor would ease or increase your anxiety. If you are spending hours a day worrying about another miscarriage, and the worry is interfering with your life, the monitor might be a good idea and might help you. If you are only mildly concerned, or if you think you would panic if unable to find the heart rate at any given time, you might want to avoid using a monitor.

The devices are probably safe to use, especially in moderation (but don't use it to listen to your baby for hours a day). Your doctor can probably offer some suggestions for minimizing risk if you decide to rent or buy a fetal heart rate monitor.

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Article Sources

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  • Stephenson, Joan. "Fetal Ultrasound Safety."JAMA293:2005 286.