When Can You Hear Your Baby's Heartbeat on a Doppler?

Pregnant Woman Having An Ultrasound
vgajic / Getty Images

A baby's heart begins to beat around 22 days after conception. Expecting parents often wonder when they'll be able to hear it for the first time. The answer varies based on the type of equipment used. After around five and a half to six weeks gestation, a vaginal ultrasound can pick up a baby's heartbeat. A few weeks later, at 10 to 12 weeks into pregnancy, a handheld ultrasound device known as a fetal Doppler can be used to hear a baby's heartbeat.

Hearing the heartbeat for the first time is, in a word, thrilling. Not hearing it, on the other hand, can be nerve-wracking. Many people are tempted to get a fetal doppler device for home use, however, this is not recommended. This is because of the uncertain efficacy of these products and the high potential for stress caused by inaccurate results. Learn more about when you can hear a baby's heartbeat using a fetal Doppler device.

Fetal Doppler at the Doctor's Office

The fetal cardiovascular system begins developing at about 5 weeks, with the heart starting to beat by 6 weeks. But the heartbeat isn't typically detectable for a few more weeks. Some obstetricians will check for a baby's heart rate with a handheld Doppler as early as 8 weeks. However, not hearing it this early on isn't necessarily cause for alarm (which is why some doctors don't use the fetal Doppler prior to 12 weeks gestation).

If you are fewer than 12 weeks along and your doctor can't find a heartbeat via Doppler, they may decide to perform an ultrasound, which can detect a heartbeat at 8 weeks gestation or even earlier. At around 16 to 20 weeks the four chambers of the heart will be developed enough to be visible using ultrasound.

At-Home Fetal Doppler

To reassure yourself that all is well in between your scheduled OB/GYN appointments, you may be tempted to purchase one of the many home Doppler devices currently on the market. There are also multiple apps available for use on your cell phone that can amplify sound enough to possibly listen to your baby's heart.

Hearing your baby's heartbeat whenever you want to is exciting, for sure, as well as comforting, especially if you've experienced a miscarriage or other problems during a previous pregnancy. But if for some reason you don't detect a heartbeat, you may become anxious, even though it doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong. This is why experts like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do not recommend the personal use of dopplers at home.

Doctors usually advise against using fetal heartbeat apps, too, because of the potential stress they can cause due to misleading or inaccurate results and information on the apps. Research shows that many fetal heart rate monitoring apps are unreliable, at best. In fact, in one study, of the 22 apps used in the study, none were able to detect a fetal heartbeat.

Hearing (or not hearing) a fetal heartbeat at home is no guarantee that things are fine (or not fine).

Furthermore, there's a lot of individual variation in the quality of these devices and apps, so they may or may not be accurate. Also, there's a normal range for when a fetal heartbeat becomes detectable. Some pregnant people may be able to hear a heartbeat with a home Doppler device as early as eight weeks into the pregnancy, while others may not hear it until closer to 12 weeks.

These variables and inconsistencies have led some experts to advise against using the do-it-yourself apps and devices, which are available on the internet as well as in some pharmacies and big box stores.

A commentary published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 used a case study to illustrate the potential downside of home Dopplers. The commentary describes the case of a woman 38 weeks into her pregnancy who noticed her unborn baby wasn't moving. Because she could hear a heartbeat on her Doppler device she was reassured that everything was OK and decided against calling her doctor.

A few days later, she went to visit her doctor, and an ultrasound scan showed that the baby had passed away. The heartbeat she heard on the monitor may have been her own.

Of course, that's the worst-case scenario, and there's no proof that the baby’s death could have been prevented. But it points to the fact that it can be difficult, and possibly risky, for an untrained person to rely too much on these home devices.

Dopplers can detect the whooshing sounds of a mother's own pulse or blood flow; only a trained healthcare provider knows how to accurately distinguish the differences between a heartbeat and other sounds.

Are At-Home Fetal Dopplers Safe?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning to people to use these home devices with caution. Handheld Doppler devices are legally marketed as "prescription devices" and, according to the FDA, should only be used by, or under the supervision of, a healthcare professional.

There is no evidence that Doppler devices cause harm to a developing baby or pregnant person. In general, though, most experts don't encourage more prenatal testing than necessary during a low-risk pregnancy.

While there is no evidence that these devices are likely to harm you or your baby, there is some controversy over whether being able to check for a heartbeat on a regular basis without medical supervision is a good idea.

A Word From Verywell

If you're contemplating purchasing a fetal Doppler device for home use, talk to your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits of home testing. If you want to use your own device, your physician may be able to offer suggestions on how to use it responsibly and to your advantage.

It might be best to wait until your doctor has found a heartbeat at one of your prenatal checkups so you know for sure that it should be detectable—something to keep in mind if you're checking for the heartbeat at home and you're not yet 12 weeks along.

Once you've entered the third trimester, it's important to pay attention to your baby's movement patterns and contact your doctor if you notice a reduction in movement or any other unusual symptoms. If you're concerned for any reason, don't rely on a heartbeat monitor to determine that all is well. When in doubt, it's always best to consult your doctor.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alnuaimi SA, Jimaa S, Khandoker AH. Fetal cardiac doppler signal processing techniques: Challenges and future research directions. Front Bioeng Biotechnol. 2017;5:82. doi:10.3389/fbioe.2017.00082

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Avoid fetal "keepsake" images, heartbeat monitors.

  3. Soffer MD, Chen KT. In search of accurate fetal heart rate monitoring mobile applications. Telemed J E Health. 2019;25(9):870-877. doi:10.1089/tmj.2018.0104

  4. Chakladar A, Adams H. Dangers of listening to the fetal heart at home. BMJ. 2009;339:b4308. doi:10.1136/bmj.b4308

  5. Boatin AA, Wylie B, Goldfarb I, et al. Wireless fetal heart rate monitoring in inpatient full-term pregnant women: testing functionality and acceptability. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(1):e0117043. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117043

By Krissi Danielsson
Krissi Danielsson, MD is a doctor of family medicine and an advocate for those who have experienced miscarriage.