12 Tips for Finding Fetal Heart Rate
with Home Dopplers

By Myrah M.

For expectant parents, hearing a baby’s heartbeat can be a wonderful experience that facilitates bonding, provides reassurance, and gives a sense of reality to the new life they will soon be welcoming into the world. Many eager parents may wish to hear the sound of their baby’s heart outside of the clinic or hospital visits and might invest in a home doppler so they can listen to the heartbeat at their leisure or share the bonding experience with siblings, grandparents, or other loved ones. Using a home doppler is fairly simple, but there are some tips and tricks that increase your chances of hearing and enjoying your baby’s heartbeat more easily.

1. Don’t try too early

It can be tempting to run out and purchase a doppler and begin trying to hear that tiny heartbeat as soon as you find out you are pregnant. While the fetal heart does develop and begin beating fairly early in pregnancy, usually by 6 weeks gestation, it is unlikely that you will be able to pick it up with an external doppler this early given the baby’s small size and how low in the pelvis it rests in early pregnancy. Even your doctor or midwife is unlikely to find the heartbeat before 12 weeks without doing a transvaginal ultrasound.

2. Get into a comfortable position

You are most likely to find your baby’s heartbeat when lying back comfortably on the couch, bed, or in a recliner. This helps lift the baby out of the pelvis and allows for full easy access to the entire surface area of your belly while you move the doppler around to locate the baby.

3. Get the right doppler

One contributing factor to how easily a baby’s heartbeat can be detected is variations in the mother’s body shape, body fat, and even things like internal scar tissue, all of which can affect how well the doppler is able to detect sound through the layers of tissue. Most dopplers use a soundwave frequency of 3 MHz; however, a 2 MHz probe provides deeper signal penetration and may make detecting a heartbeat easier when a mother’s shape or size is creating difficulty. When purchasing a doppler, you can either look for ones that include a 2 MHz probe or purchase an attachment for this size probe.

4. Have a full bladder

You may have been asked to come to your ultrasound appointments at your OB clinic with a full bladder, and this also works to increase your success of detecting your baby’s heartbeat at home. A full bladder takes up space in the pelvis and can help push your uterus up and out of the pelvis for better access with your doppler.

5. Use lots of gel

Using gel not only helps glide the probe around along your belly while you search for the heartbeat, this smooth movement also reduces static and excessive or distracting noises so you can better hear what you are searching for–your baby!

6. Be patient and take your time

Start low on your belly, just above the pubic bone, and move the doppler back and forth slowly across your entire abdomen, moving upward with each pass. It can take a while to find what you are looking for, especially if you are still very early in your pregnancy or have a particularly active and wiggly nugget in there.

7. Consider the baby’s size

Even after 12 weeks, it can still be difficult to find the heartbeat because your baby is still relatively small. Early in the second trimester, your uterus is just starting to lift up out of the pelvis and your baby still has ample room to move around and hide from your attempts. If you are having trouble finding the baby early on, take a break and try again in another week or so.

8. Consider the baby’s position

This is especially important in the third trimester when the baby is larger and less able to move around as much. Ideally, as you near your delivery date, the baby will be head down and with its back facing outward against your belly. The heartbeat is best detected through the baby’s back so this would make it detectable between your belly button and pubic bone and slightly off to one side. If your baby is not yet head down, the heartbeat may be detectable higher up. If your baby is in a back-to-back position with you, this can make it difficult to find the heartbeat.

9. Study the sound

When you first start moving the doppler across your belly, you will likely hear a variety of sounds. Go slowly and know what you are listening for. The heartbeat will sound like steady thumping or hoof beats and will continue as you hold the doppler still. Static occurs as you move the doppler around and a whooshing or more continuous sound is likely the baby moving underneath the doppler or even the placenta.

10. Don’t confuse mom with baby

If you have found what is definitely a heartbeat, but it seems slow (70-100 bpm), don’t panic! This doesn’t mean your baby has a low heart rate, but more likely that you have picked up your own heartbeat via your aorta, the biggest artery in your body that runs right through your abdomen. If you think you have found your own heartbeat, reposition the doppler and start again, low on your belly, searching for that much faster beat of your baby.

11. Don’t stress

Using a doppler to listen to your baby should be a fun and enjoyable activity, not a source of stress or compulsive checking in. If you are having difficulty finding your baby’s heartbeat to the point of it upsetting you or find yourself constantly worried about the baby and needing to check the heart rate, this is no longer a positive activity for you. If you find yourself worrying excessively or becoming overly stressed in your pregnancy, talk to your doctor or midwife.

12. Contact your doctor or midwife with concerns

At any point if you feel something is different with your baby’s movement or you don’t feel well, contact your OB provider. Even if you check the heartbeat at home and it seems normal, your doctor or midwife should still know when something doesn’t feel right and may want to evaluate you and your baby further to make sure everything is okay. Using a home doppler can provide reassurance but should never be used in place of a thorough medical assessment or prenatal care.

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