Providers use fetal heart rate monitoring to check the health of your baby. They range from manual and handheld Doppler monitoring to continuous electronic monitoring during labor and delivery. At-home devices are also available. Ask your provider about the risks and benefits of each to help you decide what’s best for you and your baby.
Fetal heart rate monitoring is a common test that healthcare providers use during pregnancy and labor. It measures your baby’s heart rate, which is a sign of how well your baby is doing.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Fetal monitoring tracks the speed and pattern of your baby’s heartbeat. The average heart rate of an unborn baby is 110 to 160 beats per minute.
By monitoring your baby’s heart rate, your provider can tell if the heart rate is too high or low or changing too much. Moderate fluctuations between six and 25 beats per minute over a 10-minute period are normal.
Irregularities in the heart rate could mean your baby is not getting enough oxygen or has other problems. If your provider sees this, you may need other testing or emergency delivery.
Situations in which your provider may use fetal monitoring include:
The types of fetal heart rate monitoring are:
External monitoring occurs on the outside of your abdomen. Your provider may do this using these manual or electronic devices:
Less often, providers monitor your baby inside your uterus. Your provider attaches a wire to your baby’s head to continuously track the heart rate. Providers use internal monitoring during labor and delivery only after your water has broken and when:
In general, fetal heart rate monitoring is safe. But most experts believe that continuous monitoring isn’t necessary for pregnancies at low risk of complications.
Continuous electronic fetal monitoring can restrict your movement, which can be helpful during labor. It also increases the risk of an unnecessary cesarean section or delivery using a vacuum device or forceps.
Internal monitoring can increase the risk of:
Handheld Doppler fetal heart rate monitors are widely sold for at-home use. Compared with professional devices that provide detailed information about heart function, at-home models only measure heart rate.
Ultrasounds are safe if performed when they are medically necessary and by trained professionals. But under some circumstances, ultrasound technology can heat tissues and produce small bubbles in tissues. The FDA discourages the use of these devices because they:
Mobile apps are also available for fetal heart rate monitoring. Some require the purchase of an accessory Doppler device. Others claim to use the built-in microphone on your mobile device to detect your baby’s heart rate.
A study of 22 apps that did not require a separate accessory found that none could detect the fetal heartbeat. Also, many apps provided false information in the description or failed to add a medical disclaimer.
Instead of fetal heart rate apps, a better way to monitor your baby is to track their movement. You should start to feel your baby move between 16 and 20 weeks of pregnancy. Talk to your provider about using this method to check on your baby’s well-being.
Your provider should let you know how your baby is doing right away.
An abnormal heart rate or rhythm does not always mean your baby is in danger. Your provider may continue to monitor your baby or order other tests.
Changes in your baby’s heart rate that last 10 minutes or more are a concern. If this happens, your provider will consider immediate cesarean section or vaginal delivery using a vacuum device or forceps.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Heart rate monitoring can give your healthcare provider valuable information about how your baby is doing, but you may not benefit from all types of fetal heart rate monitoring. At-home devices and mobile apps are not recommended. People with low-risk pregnancies do not need continuous electronic fetal monitoring during labor. Talk with your provider about the risks associated with these types of monitoring. This will help you decide what is best for you and your baby.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/13/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.