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.
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 It Stands
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 (don't use it to listen to your baby for hours a day). But your doctor can probably offer some suggestions for minimizing risk if you decide to rent or buy a fetal heart rate monitor.
Ang, Eugenius, Vicko Gluncic, Alvaro Duque, Mark E. Schafer, and Pasko Rakic. "Prenatal exposure to ultrasound waves impacts neuronal migration in mice." PNAS 10 Aug 2006 12903-12910. Accessed 12 Nov 2007.
Stephenson, Joan. "Fetal Ultrasound Safety." JAMA 293:2005 286. Accessed 12 Nov 2007.