I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the sale and use of fetal dopplers; and for connected purposes.
It is an honour to introduce the Bill, which aims to improve standards of monitoring babies’ health as we aim to reduce significantly our country’s relatively high neonatal and stillborn death rate. The United Kingdom is ranked 114th out of 164 countries in terms of progress made in reducing the number of stillbirths, and serious concerns have been raised about the use of foetal dopplers. In the next few minutes, I will outline those concerns and the case for regulating the sale of such devices.
Since being elected in 2015, I have looked closely at the policies relating to baby health, particularly through the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which I set up alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). Discussion of the issue is timely, as this is Baby Loss Awareness Week. I pay tribute to all Members for their contributions to yesterday’s debate on baby loss; I also thank the Government for their energy and determination in reducing baby loss, and especially for their target of halving the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths by 2030. We must continue to work on a cross-party basis, as a great deal of progress has been made and a great deal is still to be made. It is in that spirit that I thank the Members on both sides of the House who have sponsored the Bill.
As I said during yesterday’s debate, the Government’s support in reducing baby loss has meant that progress has been made. That includes funding for the raising of standards in, for instance, perinatal mental health services, and for improvements in equipment and the physical environment of maternity units. However, we are languishing behind other developed countries when it comes to our stillbirth rates, and that must change.
It is in this context that I hope to secure the House’s support for regulation of the sale of home dopplers, devices that allow pregnant mothers to listen to the heartbeat of their babies. There are serious concerns about the use of those devices. I have heard some consumers speak in favour of dopplers, and I am not suggesting that they have no use, but there is evidence that they can falsely reassure people about the health of their babies. We must place that responsibility in the hands of medical professionals, and encourage mothers to respond to changes in the movements of their babies rather than using devices that can be bought over the counter for £30.
Foetal dopplers send ultrasound waves into the womb, and then simulate a sound. That sound may or may not be the baby’s heartbeat; it is a simulation of the ultrasound waves bouncing off moving blood vessels. While I absolutely understand the attraction for parents wanting to hear their baby’s heartbeat, the sale of the devices is on the rise despite warnings from medical professionals. Even if home dopplers could flawlessly detect a baby’s heartbeat, that would still not be a sufficient measure of the baby’s health. A heart can continue beating despite other serious issues being present.
There is already a wealth of advice online—including advice from the NHS and expert organisations—warning against the use of home dopplers, and comprehensive advice is also provided with the instructions on the box. However, that advice is not deterring people from purchasing the devices, and their use is on the rise. Kicks Count, a campaign group that is calling for the banning of home dopplers, has been trying to raise awareness of their dangers for five years, but has not been able to change public attitudes and preconceptions. Its petition has attracted more than 12,000 signatures.
The NHS Choices website says that home foetal heart monitors
“are potentially dangerous to the mother and baby’s health”.
The Royal College of Midwives has also urged mothers not to use home dopplers. Its website says:
“Expectant mothers have been warned against the use of home fetal Doppler devices over fears that they may give false reassurances to mothers about the health of their baby.”
Guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence state that dopplers are
“unlikely to have any predictive value and routine listening is therefore not recommended.”
The problem with these devices is that anything that moves inside the abdomen, whether it be the baby kicking, air moving in the mother’s intestines or blood flowing in the arteries, is translated into a sound. It requires training to be able to detect a baby’s heartbeat, yet the sale of dopplers is not restricted to medical professionals; they are available over the counter. Given that the expert medical advice that I have mentioned highlights their dangers, I suggest to the Minister that the Department of Health needs to consider how regulation could improve the monitoring of babies’ health and restrict the sale of the devices.
The question that we must ask ourselves is this: if midwives are not using dopplers to identify foetal wellbeing, why are we allowing pregnant women to reassure themselves at home, when seeking medical advice would be the sensible and safe option? According to the instruction manual for a home doppler kit,
“It is intended to be used by care professionals, including practical nurses, midwives, relative technicians and physician assistants”.
Dopplers were never originally intended for such widespread sale on the open market.
I understand that people may feel that regulation is not necessary, and that as long as people know the risks we do not need to legislate. However, Kicks Count has been raising awareness of the issue for years through, for instance, a national media campaign. The guidelines tucked away in the doppler information booklet are often ignored. We cannot have a situation in which a product that can falsely reassure mothers about their babies’ health is being sold at an expanding rate.
I praise Mothercare for its welcome announcement earlier this year that once current stocks ran out, they would not sell any more foetal dopplers. That company recognises the concerns of healthcare professionals, and I hope that other businesses will follow suit, but in this age of Amazon, we cannot rely on the replication of such responsible behaviour by every single seller of dopplers. That is why there is a case for regulation.
The BBC spoke to the manufacturers of the product, and was told that dopplers should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care; nor should they be relied upon as an indicator of foetal health. It is potentially fatal to do so. In practice, the Bill would introduce a licensing system in England and Wales to ensure that medical professionals were responsible for monitoring foetal health. With such verification, we could remove dopplers from high street shelves and encourage more responsible practice and use of the devices. It would be for the Department of Health to oversee the process as part of our wider ambition to reduce stillbirth rates.
Baby loss is an issue that is thankfully gaining much more attention in Parliament, and we must improve the outcomes for mothers and babies in the UK. The current figures show that our standards are below those of other developed countries, and I know that the Department of Health is working hard in trying to change that. I am not suggesting that the Bill will solve all our problems, but I believe that it will go some way towards improving the monitoring of babies’ health.
Let me end by paying tribute to Kicks Count, and in particular to Elizabeth Hutton, who has put an enormous amount of energy into this campaign and who is here today. Babies and mothers deserve the very best care, and foetal dopplers pose a risk to the high standards for which we strive.
Question put and agreed to.
That Antoinette Sandbach, Stephen Hammond, Maria Caulfield, John Howell, Tulip Siddiq, Tim Loughton, Diana Johnson, Sir David Amess, Vernon Coaker, David Hanson, Mr Clive Betts and Kelvin Hopkins present the Bill.
Antoinette Sandbach accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed (Bill 110).
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)