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How Accurate Is Fetal Monitoring?

Several tests are available to help monitor how a mother and her baby are doing throughout a pregnancy. These tests include blood and urine screenings, ultrasounds, and other ways to mine useful information. And in some cases, a doctor may deem it necessary to use a fetal heart monitor.

Fetal Monitoring

What Does a Fetal Monitor Measure

A fetal heart monitor allows a physician to monitor the heartbeat of a fetus during pregnancy. The information obtained through this process is available from the early months of the pregnancy until the baby is born. The fetal heart monitoring process normally includes one of two methods:

External Monitoring

The most common way to monitor a fetus works by placing sensors on the abdomen. These sensors allow medical professionals to listen to and record the heartbeat of a fetus. Doctors often monitor the heartbeat of a fetus during prenatal visits. They may do the same once the mother goes into labor. But it is also possible to attach an ultrasound probe to the belly to allow for continuous testing throughout the pregnancy.

Internal Monitoring

Doctors may use an internal heart monitor in high-risk cases or when it becomes difficult to pick up a fetal heartbeat with an external monitor.

Once dilation occurs and the amniotic sac ruptures, internal monitoring becomes part of the labor process. The process includes the attachment of a thin electrode to the scalp of the unborn baby. The use of a small tube allows doctors to monitor contractions of the uterus. A continuous record of this information is maintained once the internal monitoring process begins.

What Information Does Fetal Monitoring Provide

The main purpose of fetal heart monitoring is to provide information regarding the oxygen intake of the fetus. During labor, the normal fetal heart rate is between 110 and 160 beats per minute. Several factors can cause fluctuations in this heart rate.

It is common for a fetus to experience short bursts of accelerated heartbeats. This acceleration is one sign that indicates to doctors the baby is getting the oxygen it needs. There is also no reason to fear occasional decelerated heartbeats. One thing that can make this happen is the compression of the baby’s head in the birth canal.

A doctor will become concerned when a fetal heartbeat accelerates and decelerates at unexplained times. A heartbeat fluctuation that lasts for an extended time may also earn the attention of a physician.

One serious issue that can affect the heartbeat and oxygen intake available to a fetus is when the umbilical cord becomes compressed in a way that restricts the baby’s blood flow. The remedy for this problem is often as simple as changing the position of the mother during labor. However, there are times when emergency delivery methods are necessary.

Limitations of Fetal Heart Monitoring

The popularity of fetal heart monitoring has risen steadily among doctors over the last four decades. Birth Injury Lawyer Group reports that no significant decline in the deaths and other complications caused by lack of oxygen to a fetus has resulted from the increased use of this technology. Studies do show a link, however, in emergency interventions like assisted deliveries and C-sections.

A common problem with fetal heart monitoring is indicators that suggest a problem when none is present. Three categories of readings are possible with fetal heart monitors.

Condition are normal with no action needed
Conditions are unclear and more monitoring is necessary
Conditions require immediate action

There is not much for doctors to figure out when faced with situations one and three. However, things can get a little murky when doctors encounter unclear test results.

Fetal heart monitors are a useful tool that has saved the lives of countless babies. Medical professionals need to exercise a bit of caution with a tool like the fetal heart monitor that does not tell a complete story. There are times when a “good” reading does not guarantee the health of a fetus. Conversely, an abnormal reading is not always an indicator of health problems for a baby.

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