Posted On: November 12, 2009

False Assurance from Home Fetal Heart Monitors

Home fetal heart monitors allow pregnant women to listen to their baby’s heart beat and have the assurance without a visit to the doctor’s office that the baby is healthy and well – but is this assurance always reliable?

A true story that happened in Britain recently suggests that the heart monitors shouldn’t replace a trip to the obstetrician if there is any concern for the baby’s health, writes Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times.

According to a commentary published at BMJ.com by doctors of the Princess Royal Hospital in Britain, a woman who was nearly full-term at 38 weeks noticed one day that the baby wasn’t moving. Instead of seeking medical advice, she turned to a home fetal heart monitor and heard what she thought was the baby’s heartbeat. After three days when she finally went to a doctor, an ultrasound scan showed the baby had already died.

Although the doctors cannot know for sure in this case that the baby would have been saved had the mother sought medical advice earlier, they said the monitors should never be used for reassurance. Dr. Chakladar, one of the authors of the BMJ commentary, said that it takes experience to determine the baby’s health. Sometimes what sounds like a baby’s heartbeat may be the mother’s own heart. And even when parents can pick up the baby’s heartbeat, it is still difficult to determine if the baby is healthy or distressed. “If a mother is concerned and feels she needs reassurance, she should immediately consult her doctor,” writes Parker-Pope.

So what is the bottom line? Dr. Chakladar advised, “On their own, these monitors are harmless; it is their improper use by parents to reassure themselves which can be dangerous…they are dangerous if they are used by untrained people as an alternative to seeking medical advice.”

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