Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

At-home fetal monitoring no substitute for med eval August 26, 2009

This article is from my Parenting column on the L.A. edition of

The joys and worries of pregnancy–especially the first time!–can be numerous. One way moms-to-be often comfort themselves is with an at-home personal fetal monitor (Doppler device). The sound of baby’s heartbeat is certainly reassuring, but can the sounds of a normal heartbeat give the entire picture of a growing infant’s health?

A hand-held Doppler device assesses the presence of fetal heart pulsations only at that moment, and it is used by midwives and obstetricians to check for viability or for intermittent monitoring during labor, explains Dr. Thomas Aust and colleagues from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Arrowe Park Hospital, Wirral in a recent article in the British Medical Journal.  “In untrained hands it is more likely that blood flow through the placenta or the mother’s main blood vessels will be heard,” say the authors.

The article outlines a case of a 27-year-old mom-to-be (at 32 weeks into her first pregnancy) with reduced fetal movements; She had first noted a reduction in her baby’s activity two days earlier but had used her own Doppler device to listen to the heartbeat and reassured herself that everything was normal.

Further monitoring by the antenatal care team was not reassuring and the baby was delivered by Caesarean section later that evening. The baby remained on the special care baby unit for eight weeks and is making steady progress.

Following this case, they searched the internet and found that a fetal Doppler device could be rented affordably by the month or purchased outright. Although the companies state that the device is not intended to replace recommended antenatal care, they also make claims such as “you will be able to locate and hear the heartbeat with excellent clarity.”

Speaking as the mother of two sons born in a birthing tub at home, assisted by midwives, I can agree that it is tempting to try to assuage worries for our baby’s health using a variety of methods; I purchased my own hand-held doppler at a drugstore (but it didn’t work nearly as well as my midwife’s. In fact, I put it aside because the intermittent, faint sound caused me more worry). The bottomline: A safe, low-risk birth of a healthy infant requires regular and attentive care by a licensed midwife or docrtor.  There are no appropriate subsitutes for experienced care by qualified health practictioners.

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