Fetal monitoring is a way for a gynecologist to check on the health, heart rate and heart rhythm of an unborn baby. It is sometimes used during pregnancy, especially if the pregnancy is considered high-risk, and always used when a woman is first admitted to the hospital to give birth.
Generally fetal monitoring is used throughout labor and delivery as well if the mother has received an epidural, her labor is induced, she has a medical issue such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, or she has had pregnancy issues in the past.
If your gynecologist decides to use fetal monitoring during your pregnancy, it may only be for a routine check, and does not necessarily mean there is an issue or your pregnancy is high-risk. Additionally, contractions during labor and delivery can be monitored as well. This monitoring can help you know when your contractions are happening so you can be more efficient with your labor breathing techniques.
Fetal Heart Monitoring
Fetal heart rate can be monitored in two ways:
- External: A stretchable belt and a receiver, known as a Doppler ultrasound transducer, are attached to your abdomen. The receiver finds the baby’s heartbeat, and then sends the data to a computer. You and your gynecologist will be able to view the rate and pattern of your baby’s heartbeat on a computer monitor and this information is then usually printed out on paper.
- Internal: Internal monitoring can give your gynecologist a better reading than external monitoring because things like movement will not affect it. Additionally, if external monitoring is not giving accurate data, your gynecologist may decide to use internal monitoring. During labor, after your water has broken and your cervix is dilated, a tiny device may be used to monitor your baby’s heartbeat. To insert it, your gynecologist will feel for part of the fetus (usually the head) that is at the cervical opening. They will then put a thin tube with a wire into the birth canal until it reaches the fetus’ scalp and place it there. They will remove the catheter and leave the wire in place and connect the wire to a cable, and then hold it in place using a band around your thigh.
Contractions can also be monitored during labor in several ways:
- External: A small pressure-sensitive device is used to track how long your contractions are and when they occur. The device is placed on your belly and held with a stretchable belt.
- Internal: To measure the strength of your contractions, as well as the length and frequency, a small, soft tube that is placed inside your uterus, next to the baby.
- Telemetry: Some hospitals may have a monitoring, known as telemetry, which allows you to move and walk around while you are in early labor. A transmitter is attached to your thigh and this transmits your baby's heart data to a computer in another part of the hospital, where they information can be tracked and monitored.