Baby heart rate monitoring during pregnancy and labour can help to detect any potential complications. This is also called fetal heart rate monitoring.
Antenatal fetal heart rate monitoring is when your baby’s heart rate is checked during your pregnancy.
Intrapartum heart rate monitoring is when your baby's heart rate is monitored during labour. During labour, your doctor or midwife will regularly watch for changes in your baby’s heart rate. This is because a change in heart rate can be a sign the baby isn’t getting enough oxygen.
If your baby is not coping well with labour, your doctor or midwife will discuss different strategies and options.
Types of baby heart rate monitoring
Your baby’s heart rate will be monitored at different stages of your pregnancy and during labour.
There are different ways a baby’s heart rate can be monitored.
Your doctor or midwife may use a handheld ultrasound device called a fetal doppler or an ear trumpet (often called a 'Pinard horn' or Pinard stethoscope) to listen to your baby’s heartbeat through your tummy.
This is called ‘intermittent auscultation’ during labour and is done at regular intervals to make sure your baby is coping well.
This monitoring during labour is done when your pregnancy has been healthy and normal and you are well. If there are complications with you or your baby, a different monitoring method during labour may be recommended.
A fetal doppler is also likely to have been used at your antenatal appointments during pregnancy.
Continuous external fetal monitoring
Another method, called a ‘cardiotocograph’ (CTG), provides a continuous recording of the baby’s heartbeat and your contractions. Two round discs containing sensors will be placed on your tummy and held on by a soft belt.
This method continuously records your baby’s heartbeat and your contractions on a paper printout. Your doctor and midwife are trained to interpret the CTG reading and to assess your baby’s wellbeing.
A CTG is a more effective method of detecting signs that baby is not coping well with labour than intermittent auscultation. CTG monitoring is used if there are complications or there are risks of complications.
Some CTG monitors can restrict your movements in labour. If you are advised to have continuous CTG monitoring, ask if there’s one available that lets you move around.
CTG monitoring can also be used to help doctors and midwives assess your baby’s health during the later stages of your pregnancy.
Internal fetal monitoring
In some situations during labour, if it is difficult to get a recording of the baby’s heart rate externally through your tummy, a fetal scalp electrode can be used. This is a small clip that is placed on the baby’s scalp.
This internal fetal monitoring is safe but requires your cervix to be dilated and your waters to be broken. It is placed on the baby’s head during a vaginal examination. It isn’t used if there are infection risks.
Fetal scalp blood sampling
Fetal scalp blood sampling involves taking a few small drops of blood from your baby’s scalp (like a pin prick). This is done through a vaginal examination during labour.
This kind of monitoring can give an immediate report on your baby’s condition in labour. This test would be done if your doctor needs more information than continuous monitoring provides. The result can help doctors decide if your baby needs to be born immediately.
If you don't feel comfortable with any of these methods, talk to your doctor or midwife.
Baby heart rate monitoring apps
There are smartphone applications available that claim to detect your baby’s heartbeat. But there is a lack of clinical evidence to support these apps as reliable heartbeat monitors for your baby.
If you wish to check your baby’s heartbeat, it is best to talk to your doctor about baby heart rate monitoring options.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: May 2022