New sensor gives more accurate foetal heartbeat readings

A UK-based engineer has developed a prototype device that could allow expectant mothers to measure a foetal heartbeat without visiting hospital.

foetal heartbeat
Dr Elizabeth Rendon-Morales and her new heart rate monitoring device (Credit: Sussex University)

Alongside movement of the baby in the womb, foetal heartbeat is a primary indicator of the health of an unborn child. During high-risk pregnancies in particular, where factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes or preeclampsia are at play, regular monitoring of the baby’s cardiac activity is vital. Currently, however, these checks are almost exclusively carried out at hospital, leading to numerous potentially stressful visits.

The new device, developed by Sussex University’s Dr Elizabeth Rendon-Morales, enables in utero foetal electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring by simply placing a sensor on the woman’s abdomen. It is an electrometer-based amplifier prototype that uses Electric Potential Sensing (EPS) technology, accurately isolating the baby’s heartbeat from the mother’s and helping to detect congenital cardiac diseases such as arrhythmia.

“Currently expectant mothers with health concerns about their babies have to go through the stress of going to hospital to check on the heartbeat of their child,” said Dr Rendon-Morales, a lecturer in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Sussex University. “With this new technology, they will be able to do this from the comfort of their own home, which will be much better for the welfare of mother and baby.

“This technology will give peace of mind in providing answers very quickly and ultimately ensuring the baby’s wellbeing.”

While there are some home-based foetal electrocardiograms available commercially, Rendon-Morales believes the new device is a significant improvement. Her detector also removes the need for a special gel to be applied to the skin, which is necessary when using the traditional silver chloride electrodes associated with ultrasound scans.

“Although the ultrasound procedure is described as being non-invasive, having gel rubbed on your skin and then an electrode pressed against your womb is invasive and can be an uncomfortable experience for mothers,” she said. “With this new heart monitor, expectant mothers can get reassurance that their baby is doing fine within a few seconds, removing the unnecessary stress and worry that waiting for a hospital scan currently involves.”

A paper on Dr Rendon-Morales’ work is published in the journal AIP Advances.