Fetal Monitoring During Labor
Updated: Mar 11
Routine fetal monitoring during labor has become the norm in our country. A tool that came about in 1958, developed for use in high risk pregnancies, External Fetal Monitoring (EFM) is now used on everyone who walks through labor and delivery to have a baby. However, one still has options!
A baby’s heart rate can vary during labor, typically ranging from 110-160 beats per minute and can help show how that baby is tolerating those labor contractions.
Done in a few ways, babies can be monitored by:
Doppler, a small device that’s handheld and when placed in the belly, transmits the heartbeat
Fetoscope or pinard, which looks similar to a stethoscope
Electronic Fetal Monitoring, external, done with two belts and two and two small monitoring devices that are put around the belly to measure heart rate and contractions; can be used continuously or intermittently
Electronic fetal monitoring, internal, uses an electronic transducer that’s screwed directly into the baby’s scalp, provides more accurate transmission of the fetal heart rate when the external one isn’t giving accurate details or closer watch of baby is needed.
Internal Intrauterine pressure monitoring is sometimes used with the internal EFM or alone, that gives information about the actual strength of a contraction, used mainly when they’re not seeing ‘strong enough’ contraction patterns with the external devices.
With continuous monitoring, one is hooked up to the machines non-stop. This can be done for no real reason at all, once a person has an epidural or other forms of interventions intended to progress labor or manage pain, or for other situations that can be deemed ‘higher risk.’
One can always ask to be intermittently monitored, which can look like being hooked up to the devices once an hour (or longer) for 20 minutes or so or to have a Doppler used on occasion.
Babies have different heart rates for different reasons throughout labor, and even though sometimes, the heart rate changing can seem scary, most things work themselves out with little intervention needed or merely a position change.
Heart rate accelerations are normal, of at least 15 beats per minute for up to 15 seconds or so and they happen during different stages of labor. They can indicate if the baby is getting enough oxygen or is handling labor well. Decelerations happen in labor as well, and there are three types of decelerations that they watch for:
Early decelerations, as baby’s head is compressed, often right before birth, when the baby is descending into the vagina, for example.
Late decelerations, which begin at the peak of a contraction or just after a contraction has ended. How a baby recovers from these can be a sign of how they’re tolerating labor.
Variable decelerations, happen at random times and are irregular dips that usually happen when the umbilical cord is being compressed. If it happens repeatedly, it can be a concern that baby’s oxygen and other important nutrients are being compromised from reaching the baby.
There are a few things that providers do to help babies cope better with their labors when decelerations occur, such as:
Making sure the laboring person is well hydrated
Making sure the laboring person has adequate oxygen