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Fetal heart rate monitoring measures the fetus’ heart rate and rhythm. This lets your healthcare provider see how your fetus is doing.
Your healthcare provider may do fetal heart monitoring during late pregnancy and labor. The average fetal heart rate is between 110 and 160 beats per minute. It can vary by 5 to 25 beats per minute. The fetal heart rate may change as the fetus responds to conditions in the uterus. An abnormal fetal heart rate may mean that the fetus is not getting enough oxygen or that there are other problems.
There are 2 ways to do fetal heart monitoring, external and internal:
This method uses a device to listen to and record the fetal heartbeat through your belly (abdomen). One type of monitor is a Doppler ultrasound device. It’s often used during prenatal visits to count the fetal heart rate. It may also be used to check the fetal heart rate during labor. The healthcare provider may also check the fetal heart rate continuously during labor and birth. To do this, the ultrasound transducer is fastened to your belly. It sends the sounds of the fetal heart to a computer. The rate and pattern of the fetal heart rate are shown on a screen and printed on paper.
This method uses a transducer put on your fetus’ scalp. The wire runs from the fetus through your cervix. It is connected to the monitor. This method gives better readings because things like movement do not affect it. But it can only be done if the fluid-filled sac that surrounds the fetus during pregnancy (amniotic sac) has broken and the cervix is opened. Your doctor may use internal monitoring when external monitoring is not giving a good reading. Or the provider may use this method to watch the fetus more closely during labor.
During labor, your healthcare provider will watch your uterine contractions and the fetal heart rate. Your provider will note how often you are having contractions and how long each lasts. Because the fetal heart rate and contractions are recorded at the same time, these results can be looked at together and compared.
Your provider may check the pressure inside your uterus while doing internal fetal heart monitoring. To do this, he or she will put a thin tube (catheter) through your cervix and into the uterus. The catheter will send uterine pressure readings to a monitor.
Fetal heart rate monitoring is used in nearly every pregnancy at prenatal visits. It is done to check on how the fetus is doing and to look for any problems. Fetal heart rate monitoring is especially helpful if you have a high-risk pregnancy. Your pregnancy is high risk if you have diabetes or high blood pressure. It is also high risk if your fetus is not developing or growing as it should.
Fetal heart rate monitoring may be used to check how preterm labor medicines are affecting the fetus. These are medicines are used to help keep labor from starting too early.
Fetal heart rate monitoring may be used in other tests, including:
Things that may affect the fetal heart rate during labor:
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to use fetal heart rate monitoring.
Radiation is not used for this test. The transducer usually causes no discomfort.
You may find the elastic belts that hold the transducers in place slightly uncomfortable. These can be readjusted as needed.
You must lie still during some types of fetal heart rate monitoring. You may need to stay in bed during labor.
With internal monitoring, you may have some slight discomfort when the electrode is put in your uterus.
Risks of internal monitoring include infection and bruising of your fetus’ scalp or other body part.
You should not have internal fetal heart rate monitoring if you are HIV positive. This is because you may pass the infection on to the fetus.
You may have other risks depending on your specific health condition. Be sure to talk with your provider about any concerns you have before the procedure.
Certain things may make the results of fetal heart rate monitoring less accurate. These include:
You may have fetal heart rate monitoring in your healthcare provider's office or as part of a hospital stay. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your health care provider's practices.
Generally, fetal heart rate monitoring follows this process:
You do not need any special care after external fetal heart monitoring. You may go back to your normal diet and activity unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise.
After internal fetal heart rate monitoring, your healthcare provider will check your baby’s scalp for infection, bruising, or a cut. The provider will clean the site with an antiseptic.
Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, based on your situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.