At Kicks Count we have been working for many years to try to reduce the UK's stillbirth and neonatal death rate, which is currently the third worst in the developed world. And while progress is being made, there is one obstacle that just keeps getting bigger. The rise in the use of home dopplers.
Today we have launched a campaign which will run alongside a petition to ban the sale of these devices on the consumer market. The opinions about our call to ban home dopplers tend to be quite polarised. Midwives, Doctors, healthcare professionals, and maybe most significantly, bereaved mothers are mainly in favour of the ban. Mums who use them are against the ban and think I am being a killjoy.
I completely get the appeal of home dopplers, if they had been around when I was pregnant I probably would have bought one. But that was before I was aware of all the risks they pose.
The most significant risk of using a home doppler is that mums may be falsely reassured when they hear a heartbeat, when actually their baby could be in distress. This could lead to life threatening delays in seeking medical assistance. The best indicator of fetal wellbeing is always baby's movements and this is what we should be focusing on - not these cheap imitations of medical equipment.
The most important message that we try to get across to pregnant women is that home dopplers are not microphones. They are not amplifying the sound of your baby's heartbeat. They are sending ultrasound waves into your body that reflect off moving blood vessels and SIMULATE a sound. There are a lot of blood vessels in a pregnant woman's abdomen, the baby's heart beating being just one. The placenta also pulses at the same rate as the heart and the mother's main artery runs across the abdomen and that can also be picked up on a doppler. There are so many vessels that can simulate the same sound as a fetal heart. NICE guidelines even highlight the risks to professionals "Do not rely solely on the CTG trace for fetal wellbeing. Be aware of limitations and artefacts i.e. doubling of maternal pulse being recorded as fetal heart."
Midwives train for three years to be able to differentiate these sounds using equipment costing upwards of £400. A £30 device from Amazon does not operate to the same high standard, and a YouTube tutorial can't possibly hope to offer you the same education and skill that a midwife has. If that was the case, the NHS could save a fortune buying home dopplers instead of the high quality equipment that they do purchase. I would compare it by saying it would be like checking your friend's heartbeat with a Peppa Pig stethoscope rather than going to a doctor. The two pieces of equipment just can't compare.
But putting all that to one side for a moment and just for arguments sake, let's say these home dopplers pick up the heartbeat perfectly and the mum can pick it out flawlessly, what does that tell us? Absolutely nothing.
If you saw a person collapsed in the street would you check their pulse and walk away? No, you'd probably call an ambulance because this person is clearly unwell, even though they have a heartbeat. It is the same with a baby. If a baby's movements change, it can be a sign that they are unwell. Just because they have a heartbeat does not mean anything. Everyone has a heartbeat up until the second before they pass away. All a heartbeat tells you is the baby is currently alive, which is the only time something can be done to help a baby in distress. If you wait until you can't find a heartbeat it's too late. Picking up the fetal heartbeat is a snapshot in time - 5 minutes later the heart can stop. It is so important that mums do not use the presence of a heartbeat as a sign their baby is well. NICE guidelines also state "Auscultation of the fetal heart may confirm that the fetus is alive but is unlikely to have any predictive value and routine listening is therefore not recommended." Even for trained midwives this is not a reliable determinant of fetal wellbeing.
Fans of home dopplers say that they shouldn't be banned and there should just be more education about not using them for reassurance. But as a charity, Kicks Count has spent the last five years doing this and it isn't helping. People who buy home dopplers have all the information they need on the box to say that they shouldn't use them to replace medical advice but clearly the message isn't getting through.
Users say they offer bonding, but there are other ways to bond. These are relatively new pieces of equipment and yet generations of mums have bonded effectively with their children. If siblings or partners want to hear the fetal heart ask your midwife to record it at your next appointment. If they are not being used for reassurance it won't matter that what they are hearing isn't "live". The risk of using them for 'fun' or bonding is the same - hearing a heartbeat is subconsciously reassuring, however much we tell ourselves they won't be used for reassurance.
The NHS, The Royal College of Midwives and even the FDA (Food and Drug administration in America) all warn of their dangers. The NHS choices website says home foetal heart monitors "are potentially dangerous to the mother and baby's health", The RCM website says: "Expectant mothers have been warned against the use of home fetal Doppler devices over fears that they may give false reassurances to mothers about the health of their baby." But these aren't the sites pregnant women are checking. They see a product in a pregnancy shop that makes some very exciting claims. Who wouldn't be enticed? We can't blame pregnant women for being drawn in by these devices when they are marketed so cleverly. This is why we need to ban them from general sale.
It is up to the Government to overrule these companies looking to make a profit and instead put the safety of mums and babies first. People may argue that they are 'fun' but I can promise that giving birth to a baby that never takes a breath is anything but fun.
For more information about our campaign and Kicks Count visit: www.kickscount.org.uk