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What Is a Fetal Stethoscope?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A fetal stethoscope allows people to listen to a fetal heartbeat, starting around halfway through a pregnancy. It is important to be aware that the heartbeat is not always audible with a stethoscope, and failure to hear it is not necessarily cause for alarm. This tool provides a quick and easy way to listen for the heart, and can be useful in regions where ultrasound and other tools may not be available. Some expecting parents also like to use it during a pregnancy.

The instrument includes a bell at one end for placement against the belly, and may have a chin rest to support the listener’s head. A set of tubes connect to earpieces that magnify the sound of the heartbeat, allowing the care provider to collect information about heart rhythm and rate. To use a fetal stethoscope, the care provider locates the baby’s back and places the bell against it before listening for the heartbeat. It may be necessary to move the device around to get the best sound.

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Fetal heartbeats can be faint, and sometimes a trick of anatomy makes it hard to detect a beating heart. If people do not hear the heart when they use the fetal stethoscope, they may try repositioning, or quieting down the room. Ambient noises may drown out the very faint sounds from the fetus, especially early in pregnancy. Sometimes internal sounds from the mother’s body are also a problem. Midwives and other providers of home care may use this device instead of or in addition to an ultrasound while monitoring a pregnancy.

Parents who want to use a fetal stethoscope can get instructions from a nurse, midwife, or doctor who can show them how to use the device. This can include tips on placement, and reminders that it is not always possible to hear the heartbeat. Parents who notice changes can report them, but they may not necessarily be a cause for concern unless there are signs of a problem, like a radically decreased rate of fetal activity.

Another device known as a Pinard horn can also be used as a fetal stethoscope. It consists of a long wooden or metal tube with a bell at one end and an area to listen at the other. To use it, people apply their ears directly to the other end of the Pinard horn after placing the bell, listening for the heartbeat along the short length of tubing.

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