Getting a positive pregnancy test is a major life moment. But once the initial excitement wanes, it’s natural to wonder (and worry) about the many milestones ahead. A big question on many expectant parents’ minds: When can you hear baby’s heartbeat?
You’re probably on pins and needles waiting for that signature pitter-patter sound; it’s exciting, and listening to that internal percussion can make baby’s impending arrival feel all the more real. But you’ll have to hang tight for just a bit. (Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be much longer now.) Here’s when doctors say babies typically develop a heartbeat—plus, when you can expect to hear that sweet sound.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), baby’s cardiac tissue, which will form the heart, starts to develop within the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
Every baby and their developmental progress is slightly different, but you can generally start to see visible cardiac activity on an ultrasound around 5.5 to six weeks, says Julie Lamppa, APRN, CNM, a nurse-midwife at the Mayo Clinic and author of Obstetricks. Lauren Carlos, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Illinois, adds that the actual heart chambers and valves aren’t done developing until about 11 weeks of pregnancy.
Baby’s heart is typically beating away by six weeks. That said, you may not actually be able to hear it yet, Carlos says. “Often in early pregnancy, it’s difficult to use the handheld doppler machine to hear the heartbeat because it’s such a tiny structure. It’s hard to point the device exactly right,” she says.
Generally, “We should be able to see it on ultrasound by the end of the seventh week,” says Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando. “That’s why we have a lot of people come in for their confirmation visits around that time.”
But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Greves tells her patients that they may not be able to hear it right away before she even attempts to help facilitate. “I say, ‘I really hope we’ll be able to hear the baby today, but there’s a chance we may not be able to,’” she says. If not, she’ll have her patients do an ultrasound to see the baby heartbeat. “That helps with anxiety that parents may have,” Greves explains.
There are a few different reasons why you may not be able to hear baby’s heartbeat in early pregnancy, including your physical anatomy. “I recently saw someone who was 10 weeks who had a tilted uterus—and we couldn’t hear the heartbeat,” recalls Greves. Placental position can also potentially impede your ability to hear baby’s heartbeat. What’s more, doppler detection might prove a bit tricky if Mom is overweight. It’s also possible that your due date has been miscalculated, and you’re not quite as far along as you initially had believed.
Of course, it’s also true that not hearing baby’s heartbeat can be a sign that something is wrong. But Lamppa says you shouldn’t automatically panic if a heartbeat isn’t audibly detected. “There isn’t necessarily cause for worry if you can’t hear the baby’s heartbeat in early pregnancy,” she says. “It’s a very small target, and sometimes it can be very challenging to hear with a doppler.”
When can you hear baby’s heartbeat with doppler?
Your doctor or midwife will usually use a fetal doppler to check on baby at your prenatal visits. This handheld device uses sound waves to detect baby’s heartbeat. “For some pregnancies, a provider may be able to hear the heartbeat with a doppler at 8 weeks gestation,” Lamppa says. “For others, it could be as late as 12 weeks gestation or more.”
When can you hear baby’s heartbeat with stethoscope?
A stethoscope, which is a medical instrument that’s usually used to listen to the heart or lungs, can technically be used to hear baby’s heartbeat too. But it’s just not something doctors do anymore now that dopplers are available. “I know some midwives that learned the skill for fun, but I don’t know of anyone who uses it for patient evaluation,” Carlos says.
Can you hear baby’s heartbeat at home?
Hoping to hear baby’s heartbeat at home, whenever you want? There are at-home fetal dopplers on the market for consumer purchase—and it’s understandable if you’re a bit curious or even tempted. However, most doctors advise against buying and using these devices. For starters, as an amateur user, you may find it difficult to locate baby’s heartbeat—and this can lead to unnecessary anxiety and panic. “If you know how to find the heartbeat and you know the difference between the mom’s and the baby’s, sometimes it can help give people a sense of reassurance,” Greves says. “But it can cause angst if they can’t find it.”
It’s also important to note that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend the usage of at-home fetal doppler either. The agency points out that they’re technically “prescription devices,” and should only be used by people who have been specially trained.
Baby’s heartbeat will usually start pretty slow and gradually increase in speed over time, Lamppa says. “Later in the first trimester, fetal heart rate is typically 140 to 170 beats per minute, but there’s no cause for alarm if it varies a bit from this, she says.
In the second and third trimesters, the normal range for fetal heart rate is 110 to 160 beats per minute, says Lamppa. She explains that the rate is dependent on fetal gestational age, but that it’s also affected by baby’s activity level. “If baby is in a resting state, the heart rate will likely be at a lower baseline—just like when we are sleeping,” she says. Of course, when baby is very active, their heart rate will be higher.
And, for the record, if you’ve heard that a faster heart rate means baby is a girl and a slower one means it’s a boy, know that this is simply not true, as noted by John Hopkins Medicine. It’s just a fun old wive’s tale. Baby’s heartbeat and sex are unrelated.
You’ll feel overwhelming relief and joy when you can hear baby’s heartbeat for the first time. And you’ll continue to love listening to that reassuring sound every time your doctor or midwife uses the doppler. Your heartbeat might beat a little faster too.
About the experts:
Lauren Carlos, MD, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. She earned her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine.
Christine Greves, MD, is an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida. She received her medical degree from the University of South Florida College of Medicine.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
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