Monitoring fetal heartbeat is a way to determine the well-being of the fetus. The physician uses this procedure to assess the rhythm and rate of the fetus’ heartbeat. Under normal circumstances, a fetus’ heart rate ranges anywhere from 110 beats to 160 beats per minute. This rate can change depending on the environment the fetus experiences in the uterus.

Why Do Physicians Monitor Fetal Heartbeat?

Obstetricians monitor fetal heartbeat practically in every pregnancy. This allows them to check the wellbeing of the fetus and look for any change that could be connected with pregnancy or labor-related problems.

When you go to the obstetrician for prenatal visits, it is quite common for the physician to monitor the fetal heartbeat. Furthermore, if you are put on preterm labor medications, fetal heartbeat monitoring allows the physician to monitor the effects of the medication on the fetus.

Fetal heartbeat monitoring is often used for high-risk pregnancies. It is a common procedure amongst women with conditions such as:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Problems with fetal growth

If the fetus’ heart rate is abnormal, it could mean the fetus is not getting sufficient amounts of oxygen or there are other problems. Monitoring the heartbeat allows the physician to ensure everything is fine with the fetus during the pregnancy and through labor.

Methods Used to Monitor Fetal Heartbeat

Obstetricians use two primary methods for monitoring the heartbeat of a fetus. The monitoring can be external or internal.

  1. External Fetal Heartbeat Monitoring:

There are different methods of monitoring fetal heartbeat externally. The method adopted will depend on your physician.

  • Typically, external monitoring involves listening and/or recording the fetus’ heartbeat via your abdomen.
  • The physician can use a fetoscope, which does not make use of ultrasound. This is a listening device that resembles a stethoscope, but the physician’s forehead is used to conduct the sound.
  • It requires a lot of skill and hence is not used by many physicians. The most commonly used device to monitor fetal heartbeat is Doppler ultrasound. This is a hand-held device that uses a gel as a conductor. The transducer is moved around the abdomen until the heartbeat is detected and conducted to an electronic monitor. This method is often used during prenatal visits.

When you go into labor, the obstetrician may opt for continuous fetal heart monitoring. The transducer of the ultrasound is fixed to the abdomen using a tape and this continuously conducts the fetal heart rate and pattern to a computer screen. The rate and pattern can be printed to check for minute details.

2. Internal Fetal Heartbeat Monitoring:

If there is high risk pregnancy, the doctor may opt for internal fetal heartbeat monitoring.

  • Here, an electronic transducer is fixed on the fetus’ scalp via the cervical opening.
  • This type of monitoring is considered to be more accurate and consistent compared to external monitoring since movements do not have an effect.
  • Usually, internal fetal heartbeat monitoring is the need of the hour if the obstetrician feels the heart rate is not normal or the fetus requires closer monitoring.

More often than not, internal monitoring is used at the time of labor. Uterine contractions as well as fetal heart rate are monitored simultaneously and both can be examined and compared.

The Bottom Line

Monitoring fetal heartbeat through pregnancy and labor can detect possible problems early on and allow the physician to take action while there is time. For instance, external monitoring is often used as a non-stress test to monitor and evaluate the fetus’ heart rate while the baby is moving and not moving. When coupled with the ultrasound, this test can give the doctor a good idea about the amount of amniotic fluid present in the uterus. The monitoring also lets doctors know when the fetus can take the stress of labor or vaginal delivery. If not, the doctors will perform a Cesarean to deliver the baby.

Doctors use fetal heartbeat monitoring to monitor you and your baby if you have a high-risk pregnancy, a medical condition that can affect you or your baby or complications you may have developed during a previous pregnancy.