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When Can You Hear Your Baby’s Heartbeat on a Doppler?
Around 12 weeks into your pregnancy, you’ve nearly reached the end of the first trimester, and your obstetrician will use an ultrasound device known as a
fetal Doppler to check for your baby’s heartbeat. Hearing the heartbeat for the first time is, in a word, thrilling. Not hearing it, on the other hand, can be nerve-wracking.
What Is a Fetal Doppler?
A fetal Doppler is a type of fetal heartbeat monitor that uses sound waves (ultrasound) to check a baby’s heartbeat while in utero.
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Fetal Doppler at the Doctor’s Office
Some obstetricians will check for a baby’s heart rate with a handheld Doppler as early as week eight. However, not hearing it this early on isn’t necessarily cause
for alarm (which is why some doctors don’t use the fetal Doppler prior to 12 weeks’ gestation).
If you are fewer than 12 weeks along and your doctor can’t find a heartbeat via Doppler, they may decide to perform an ultrasound, which can detect a
heartbeat at eight weeks’ gestation or even earlier.
At-Home Fetal Doppler
To reassure yourself that all is well in between your scheduled OB/GYN appointments, you may be tempted to purchase one of the many home Doppler devices currently on the market.
Hearing your baby’s heartbeat whenever you want to is exciting, for sure, as well as comforting, especially if you’ve experienced a miscarriage or other
problems during a previous pregnancy. But if for some reason you don’t detect a heartbeat, you may become anxious, even though it doesn’t necessarily mean anything’s wrong.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of individual variation as to when a fetal heartbeat becomes detectable. Some women may be able to hear a heartbeat with a
home Doppler device as early as eight weeks into the pregnancy, while others may not hear it until closer to 12 weeks.
These variables and inconsistencies have led some experts to advise against using the do-it-yourself devices, which are available on the internet
as well as in some pharmacies and big box stores.
A commentary published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 used a case study to illustrate the potential downside of home Dopplers.
The commentary describes the case of a woman 38 weeks into her pregnancy who noticed her unborn baby wasn’t moving. Because she could
hear a heartbeat on her Doppler device she was reassured that everything was OK and decided against calling her doctor.
A few days later, she went to visit her doctor, and an ultrasound scan showed that the baby had passed away. The heartbeat she heard on the monitor may have been her own.
Of course, that’s the worst-case scenario, and there’s no proof that the baby’s death could have been prevented. But it points to the fact that
it can be difficult, and possibly risky, for an untrained person to rely too much on these home devices.
How early will an at-home fetal doppler work?
While some brands claim that their fetal dopplers can detect heartbeats from 9 weeks into the pregnancy, others claim they only work from around week 16.
Some companies even state that their dopplers should only be used in the third trimester — that is, from week 28 onward. (And just a reminder: By this time, you should be feeling your baby kick and may even hear that little heart beating away with nothing but a good ol’ stethoscope.)
But we know what you’re really wondering — can any over-the-counter fetal dopplers work earlier than nine weeks? The short answer:
We couldn’t find an up-and-up brand that claims this. However, anecdotally, many people say that they used their doppler before it was
meant to pick anything up, and they managed to hear their little one’s heartbeat.
You may want to play around with your doppler and see if you can hear anything. Remember, it’s common to only hear the heartbeat
from the second trimester onward, so it’s important to know yourself and know if not hearing it may cause you unnecessary worry.
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