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Categories > Pregnancy and Childbirth > Preterm labor

Keeping an eye on baby

When you’re in labor, fetal monitoring shows your healthcare providers how your baby is responding to the birthing process and helps them determine whether your labor can proceed naturally or if your baby needs to be delivered via cesarean section.

What is fetal monitoring?

Your baby’s heart rate is monitored externally or internally during labor and delivery. It’s normal to have changes in heart rate, which typically ranges from 110 to 160 beats a minute (adult hearts beat about 60 to 100 times a minute). But sometimes a rate that doesn’t vary or is too low or too high may be a sign of a problem, such as a lack of oxygen or blood getting to the fetus.

Your provider may use any of the following to track your baby’s heartbeat. The method used depends on your labor’s progression, your complication risk and the hospital where you’re delivering:

  • Doppler devices are small handheld instruments that are placed against your abdomen to convert sound waves into signals of your baby’s heartbeat. Your provider may have used one of these to check the baby’s heartbeat throughout your pregnancy. He or she will likely listen to the heartbeat before, during and just after a contraction or nonstop throughout labor to see how your baby reacts to contractions.
  • External electronic fetal monitoring provides an ongoing record of your baby’s heart activity. Two belts are wrapped around your abdomen. One monitor looks at the baby’s heart rate; the other measures the strength and length of each contraction.
  • Internal electronic fetal monitoring may be used after your water breaks. An electrode is inserted through the vagina and put on the baby’s scalp to measure heart rate. A thin tube called a catheter may also be inserted into the vagina and placed in the uterus to check the strength of contractions.