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Pregnancy is full of special milestones, and one of the best is the very first time you can hear your baby’s heartbeat. Once you hear that unmistakable thump, thump, thump, it’s almost like meeting your little one for the first time.
So, when can you expect to hear that precious little heartbeat? And how can you get a good listen? Read on, mama.
Since the second you found out you were pregnant, you’ve probably been anxiously awaiting the day you can hear baby’s strong and healthy heartbeat, which can be reassuring for new parents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen quite as quickly as you’d like.
How long do you have to wait?
A legitimate fetal heartbeat may first be detected as early as 5 1/2 to 6 weeks after gestation. A vaginal ultrasound is typically required to pick up that first sound.
If a doctor put a stethoscope on a pregnant person’s belly at 6 weeks, they likely wouldn’t hear a heartbeat, and that’s because the baby’s heart hasn’t fully formed yet.
That said, the best chance of hearing those wonderful beats doesn’t come until around 6 1/2 to 7 weeks after gestation.
This is why doctors often recommend waiting until you’re about 8 weeks pregnant before you come in for your first ultrasound (though that could still be too early!). They don’t want you getting nervous if they can’t pick up the heartbeat earlier than that.
The heart is the first organ that actually begins to form and function in the womb, and is the life source for your baby. The first time your little one’s heart beats will likely happen around 3 weeks after gestation — although, of course, you won’t be able to hear it that early.
At that point, that teensy tiny beating noise is so faint that it’s hard for anyone to pick it up. Around weeks 4 and 5, the heart is going to start beating more steadily.
Hearing your baby’s heartbeat requires a little bit more than just listening closely — in fact, it can be nearly impossible to hear it with the human ear. There are a few other ways to get more of that sweet, sweet sound.
At your first appointment, the doctor will likely pick up your baby’s heartbeat through a transvaginal ultrasound, where a probe is inserted into the vagina.
This helps doctors get a clear visual of the fetus and uterus, and can help confirm a healthy pregnancy as well as how many babies are in there. A transvaginal ultrasound is also the most reliable and accurate way to detect a heartbeat so early on.
After a few weeks, when transvaginal is no longer necessary, a doctor can find the heartbeat through a standard abdominal ultrasound, which is like the image you’ve probably seen in dozens of movies and television shows: a transducer being rubbed over a pregnant belly.
A doppler is another type of noninvasive ultrasound that uses sound waves to detect blood flow and diagnose certain conditions like blood clots, blocked arteries, or heart issues.
That’s how it’s different than a standard ultrasound, which can’t show blood flow. A fetal doppler can pick up on the heartbeat as well.
A stethoscope isn’t going to produce the results you want until you’re about 18 to 20 weeks, and even around that time, it depends on a few things, such as your weight, how the baby is positioned, and the location of the placenta.
Most doctors don’t end up using stethoscopes anymore, since the technology of ultrasounds and fetal dopplers can be so much faster and easier.
A quick search on how to hear a baby’s heartbeat will give you some exciting news: it might be possible to detect the baby’s heartbeat on your own, in the comfort of your home, with no doctors present. Sounds like a dream, right? Not so much.
Although fetal dopplers can be purchased easily online, they’re not recommended by doctors of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For one thing, these devices can be made by anyone, meaning they aren’t medical grade and may not work as well, if at all.
Imagine using a fetal doppler at home and not detecting a heartbeat. You’d probably panic and head to the doctor right away, which is a terrifying experience, and one that just isn’t necessary.
Secondly, the FDA issued a warning against fetal dopplers in 2014, advising parents to only have doctors use them if it’s medically necessary. While there’s no research showing that ultrasounds can be harmful, they may heat tissues slightly and produce small bubbles in tissue, which isn’t ideal.
You should also avoid apps that claim to listen to baby’s heartbeat for you. Experts say that apps can confuse the sound of your own heartbeat with the baby’s heartbeat, giving you an inaccurate reading and a false sense of assurance.
Plus, would you really trust a cheap app on your phone to tell you something so important?
The moral of the story? Leave fetal heartbeat listening sessions up to the doctor.
Excited for your first ultrasound? Also feeling totally stressed out? That’s normal, as this can be a nerve-wracking experience.
This appointment will likely be scheduled around 7 1/2 to 8 weeks after gestation (remember: that’s when you’ll probably be able to hear baby’s heartbeat), although some offices prefer to wait a bit longer.
If you’ve been struggling to have a baby, have experienced a miscarriage, or have a prior medical condition, the appointment could be scheduled as early as 6 weeks.
While you’re there, the doctor will check to confirm viable pregnancy. They’ll look for an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage, multiple pregnancies (aka twins), and any abnormal growths.
They’ll also be looking for baby’s heartbeat and getting a first glimpse (although they’ll be really, really tiny in there) to take a basic crown-to-rump measurement, which can help determine gestational age.
In other words: you’ll find out your due date.
Oddly enough, having a full bladder helps the doctor or technician get a more clear image of the fetus, so prepare by drinking a few glasses of water before going in (and resisting the urge to pee, which is easier said than done when pregnant).
Remember, that first ultrasound is probably going to be a transvaginal one, which means you’ll be lying on an examination table or bed while a probe is inserted into your vagina. An image will appear on a screen, and you should be able to hear the heartbeat for the first time. Cue all the tears.
In the very first few weeks of pregnancy, a baby’s heart is still developing, and fetal heartbeat will be between 90 and 110 beats per minute (bpm).
This increases gradually, and by weeks 8 to 10, it should be a lot faster. By then a healthy baby’s heartbeat should be between 140 and 170 bpm. By the second and third trimesters, baby’s heartbeat is generally between 110 and 160 bpm.
But here’s something important to remember: your baby’s heartbeat will vary throughout your pregnancy and at each appointment you go to. Don’t be surprised if the bpm changes a lot between visits to the doctor.
Still, doctors monitor heartbeats for a reason. If they notice that it’s too slow, too fast, or irregular, that could be a sign of a heart condition.
What if something is off?
An irregular heartbeat is referred to as fetal arrhythmia and is quite rare — it only happens in 1 to 2 percent of pregnancies. It’s considered a benign condition and usually fixes itself. There are a few reasons it could be happening:
- high levels of caffeine or nicotine
- structural development changes in baby’s heart
- congenital heart defects (this is very rare and can be potentially serious)
If your doctor notices an irregular heartbeat, they’ll monitor the situation closely for a few weeks. They might also recommend you to go to a maternal-fetal medicine doctor or a pediatric cardiologist.
Many expecting parents feel nervous that they won’t hear a heartbeat at the first doctor’s appointment, and, in fact, some don’t. Before you panic, know that this doesn’t always mean there’s a problem.
The most common reason you can’t hear a heartbeat is that it’s too early on in the pregnancy to hear anything. Again, remember that a baby’s heartbeat can’t be heard until about 6 weeks, and even that might be too early for some.
If this happens and it’s early on, your doctor will likely reschedule your appointment for a few weeks down the line, which can certainly be nerve wracking.
There are a few other reasons you may not be able to hear that little beating noise.
You have a tilted uterus
Modern medicine has come a long way, but it isn’t perfect. If your womb isn’t in the right position, it’s harder to pick up on sounds like the heartbeat.
A tilted uterus can make it harder to hear anything because a doppler is directional. If it’s aimed at where your uterus should be, but it’s not there, it won’t pick up any sounds.
The baby is out of range
If the doctor is using a doppler to pick up on the heartbeat, it needs to be in the exact right spot to catch that sound.
Early on in the pregnancy, that little baby is super tiny, and it can take some time and luck for the doctor to get the doppler in the right spot. Sometimes they just can’t catch the little bean!
You’re of a larger size
If you’re someone in a larger body and you have a larger abdomen, there’s likely some extra padding in between your baby and the doppler that is going to make it hard to pick up sound.
Don’t stress — your doctor will have suggestions for alternative methods for hearing that tiny beat (likely a transvaginal ultrasound).