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Are At-Home Dopplers Safe? Here's What You Should Know

Nothing compares to hearing your baby's heartbeat for the first time. If you work with a doctor, you'll likely hear it loudly through the crinkly static of a Doppler machine. If you work with a midwife, you might hear a slightly softer thump, thump through an old-school fetoscope. It's now possible to purchase a Doppler for your own use so you can hear your baby on your very own couch, but is that such a good idea? Are at-home Dopplers safe?

According to Baby Center, it's not a good idea to buy a Doppler for home use (though I totally understand the temptation). A handheld Doppler is basically an ultrasound device, and unfortunately, no one knows the long term consequences of overusing one. Though generally assumed safe, ultrasound technology heats tissues inside the body and may cause cavitation — little bubbles — in some cases. Truly, a Doppler is not a toy.

As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend that consumers engage in non-medical 3- or 4-D ultrasounds for keepsake purposes — nor do they recommend purchasing your own Doppler online. The FDA noted that, "The long term effects of tissue heating and cavitation are not known. Therefore, ultrasound scans should be done only when there is a medical need, based on a prescription, and performed by appropriately-trained operators."

Rachel Stewart Hart of Birthing Way Midwifery in Georgia uses ultrasound technology only very sparingly in her pratice. "Our moms might do one anatomy scan at 20 weeks and then that's all." As she tells Romper in an interview:

"Especially early in pregnancy, we want the baby to be left alone to form and grow and not to be intruded with, because there’s nothing anybody can do if there’s going to be a miscarriage. Since we don’t know the long term effects of [ultrasound technology], we just prefer to leave it alone as much as possible."

In fact, Hart doesn't even use a Doppler in her office, unless she's concerned she can't hear a heartbeat, or if the mother requests it — after she's been bleeding, for instance. Hart does use the Doppler during labor, however, because most moms aren't able to sit still long enough for her to find the heartbeat with a fetoscope. (Nothing gets you wiggling like contractions.)

Hart sums up the issue succinctly. "We’re not sure what effect the ultrasound has, so if we don’t have to use it, why?"

Some of Hart's clients do purchase their own fetoscopes, however. A fetoscope — a slightly steampunk device you can check out in almost every episode of BBC One's Call The Midwife — is a non-electronic tool that detects fetal heartbeats after week 20. The downside to fetoscopes? They can be a bit more difficult to use. You have to listen hard, and some trial-and-error may be involved. But it might just be worth the diligence — for Hart, the fetoscope captures "a more authentic heartbeat" than the Doppler.

Dr. Kameelah Phillips, an OB-GYN and founder of Obabymaternity.com, has a different take. "[A handheld Doppler] is technically safe, but I don't advise it," she tells Romper in an email interview. "No harm will come to the baby or the mother from applying the Doppler, but if you don't know what you are listening for, then your 'interpretation' can lead to lots of hospital visits, anxiety, and potentially, intervention."

Which is exactly why I would never buy one myself. As a person with slight obsessive leanings during pregnancy, I know I'd be using that machine every single day — and freaking out, every single day. Between real medical concerns about long-term effects of overuse and baby-related hypochondria, owning my own Doppler could only lead to disaster. In any case, it seems that for many reasons, ultrasound technology is better left to trained professionals.

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