What is a Fetal Monitor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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A fetal monitor is a device which is used to listen to the heartbeat of a baby during labor and delivery. By monitoring the baby's heartbeat, a doctor can catch early signs of distress, and adjust his or her approach to the labor appropriately. There are a number of different types of fetal monitor available, and several different approaches to monitoring. Pregnant women generally discuss their options with their doctors to find a method which works best for them.

Depending on the pregnancy and the situation, people can choose continuous or intermittent monitoring. With continuous monitoring, the monitor is in place at all times, providing to the minute information about how the baby is doing. This choice is often recommended for high risk pregnancies, and it may also be used by a hospital to reduce liability. Intermittent monitoring involves a periodic listen for changes in the fetal heart rate which could indicate a problem.

The most basic fetal monitor is a fetoscope, a stethoscope which has been designed specifically for listening to the heartbeat of a fetus. To use this device, the doctor positions it over the uterus and moves it until he or she finds a strong heartbeat. The major disadvantages to the fetoscope are that it does not allow for continuous monitoring, it requires the mother to lie still in a prone position, and it can only be heard by the user.


With a basic electronic fetal monitor, the device is strapped to the mother's belly and attached to a machine which provides a readout. With telemetry, the mother can be mobile, moving around the room and changing position as needed, rather than being forced to lie in bed. The main advantage of an electronic fetal monitor is that it allows for continuous monitoring, it can be heard by multiple people, and in the case of a device equipped with telemetry, it allows the mother to move around.

Another variation on the device, the doppler fetal monitor, is an ultrasound device which is hand-held and applied to the belly by the user. Some expecting parents like to use this type at home to listen to the baby's heartbeat, and these devices are also utilized in the delivery rooms for intermittent monitoring. Yet another way to listen to the fetal heart rate is with an internal monitor, which is applied to the baby's head inside the uterus for a very accurate reading.



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