Fetal Monitoring

How a fetal monitor works to help your baby

There have been so many advances in prenatal medicine, treatment and preparation, and many of them have been in the field of fetal monitoring. With more advanced machines and monitoring methods, a medical team can watch your baby every step of the way to make sure everything's alright; if any problems do arise, they can act quickly to resolve them before you or your baby are harmed.


Although fetal monitoring aims to improve the labor and delivery process, it can be confusing, uncomfortable and even problematic for a low risk delivery. Find out the advantages to different types of fetal monitoring, when they are used and what to consider before you get hooked up to the monitor.

When Fetal Heart Rate Monitoring is Necessary

Fetal monitoring is a vital part of every pregnancy, though the type of monitoring will depend on whether you are experiencing complications, the baby's health and if you run into a problem during labor. Simply listening to your baby's heartbeat with a stethoscope is a form of fetal heart rate monitoring, but it's so familiar and non-invasive that most people don't think twice about it. For most women, the fetal monitoring that's used during labor is a little more sophisticated: a Doppler fetal monitor, electronic fetal heart monitor or internal electronic monitor will let your doctor or midwife watch for signs of fetal distress.

In some cases, electronic fetal monitoring takes place well before labor begins. For high-risk pregnancies or when certain complications like preeclampsia are present, your doctor may put you on bed rest and have you use a home fetal monitor to track your baby's heartbeat. Of course, you can also expect to visit your doctor more often (or have them visit you) to double check that your baby is doing fine.

As far as labor and delivery are concerned, many hospitals require that all women be hooked up to an electronic fetal monitor continuously, but some women who are having a high risk birth may need to be monitored internally, with a small fetal scalp electrode inserted through the cervix and onto your baby's head. On the other hand, if you want a natural childbirth, have chosen to deliver in a birth center or opted for a home birth, you'll probably be monitored intermittently with a Doppler. In this case, the heartbeat will be taken for short periods of time throughout labor, but keep in mind that you'll be switched to continuous monitoring if any problems arise.

Can a Fetal Monitor Hurt your Baby?

A fetal monitor will not interfere with your baby's movements or health, and in most cases it's completely non-invasive so your baby won't feel any part of it. An electronic monitor uses two small disks that are held against your abdomen with a stretchy band -- one to monitor your contractions, another to monitor the baby's heart beat. However, being strapped to the machine may limit your range of movement, which can be frustrating when you're trying to deal with labor contractions.

But although a fetal monitor has no parts that will cause you or your baby physical pain, there is a downside to continuous fetal monitoring. Studies have shown that an increase in fetal monitoring over the years has led to an increase in intervention rates, and in turn, many low-risk labor and deliveries have resulted in unnecessary cesarean sections prompted by mistaken measurements. If readings are misinterpreted, you could be left anxious, confused and willing to speed through the labor by any means necessary to give birth to a healthy baby. This is one reason to request an intermittent monitoring or alternative monitoring that will let you keep a close eye on your baby, but not too close.