I'm 30 weeks and four days pregnant. That means a spot of heartburn to contend with, Googling whether I can eat smoked salmon at brunch and trying to train our puppy to sleep in every morning.
Keeping in touch with the young Master Zabel before he arrives is fun, though, and the Shell baby heartbeat listener is an intriguing way to do it.
The Shell is a $69 connected health accessory from women's health startup Bellabeat that pops on the end of your iPhone. I tested it out with an iPhone 6 but it also works with the 6s, 6 Plus, 7 and 7 Plus with no Android version confirmed yet.
The idea is pretty simple - it's designed to amplify your iPhone's microphone so that when you press it to your body, Bellabeat's noise isolating algorithms and the shell-like design of the add-on gets rid of any background noise.
Bellabeat isn't selling this as a medical device to replace regular prenatal appointments. It's non-invasive, doesn't send any waves into your body and it's meant to be more of a bonding device for the whole family.
One quick point - you can actually also use the Shell iPhone/iPad app on its own, without the accessory using the phone's built-in microphone on its own. Over one million women were on the waiting list for the app and so far we're seeing mixed reviews but it's probably worth giving this a go first before you buy.
Can you hear it?
The Shell is seriously beginner friendly; easy to set up and use once you've downloaded the companion app.
It's lovely to hear but I also heard a lot of muffled sound
The iPhone app itself is simple to navigate and has some nice features, including a recording function (which you can then save and share clips of with family and friends), a kick counter and tutorials on fetal heart positions. It's a small touch but there's also a homescreen counting down how many days you have left till your due date.
As for its usefulness, though, I've had mixed results over a month or so of living with the Shell. For instance, it has calculated that I am now in week 32, based on my due date, which isn't correct, so that has been mildly confusing each time I've opened up the app.
I first started to use the Shell at 27 weeks (and 2 days) pregnant in which the app also calculated the wrong week by two weeks. At that point when pressing the Shell to my belly, I could only hear my own heartbeat clearly and... nothing else. As the instructions state to use the device from 30 weeks for the best results, I decided not to panic and waited two weeks before giving it another go.
We got in touch with Bellabeat to clarify the all important timeline of when expecting mothers can use this device and a rep told us: "We recommend listening to the baby's heartbeat from week 25 of pregnancy. In some instances, if the baby is still and in a convenient position, it is possible to hear the heartbeat even from the 18th week."
Shell + iPhone vs Doppler
As you'd expect, you physically place the Shell over the bottom of your iPhone, open the app then place on your lower belly which means you can see the screen. Maybe my baby's just being awkward but it can take a few attempts each time, though, so be prepared to spend for you and your partner to spend some time with this. A number of times I've managed to locate the heartbeat but only briefly for a matter of seconds before I've lost it again. It is lovely to listen to when it works but I found the whole thing quite frustrating to use with a lot more muffled sound than anything else.
The set up obviously does work because I have been able to hear the heartbeat for short bursts at a time but purely for the listening feature, the handheld Dopplers used by midwives seem to be much more effective at producing a strong, recognisable heartbeat sound. You can pick one of these up from $40, so cheaper than the Shell, though some midwives will recommend against it unless you're trained. For that reason, though, I'm not sure I'd choose to buy the Shell over that alternative.
What you're paying for here with the Shell, then, is really the extra, connected features of recording and sharing the audio. When playing these back, either grab some headphones or turn the volume right up - you really do need to listen carefully. Some recordings can sound more like the low rumbling of wind or waves on a white noise machine than anything else. Still, if you're anxious for your next appointment, it's something.
Getting tech to work seamlessly with women's bodies, and unborn babies for that matter, can't be easy and there's a few reasons that users may have difficulties. My baby might just not be in the best position for listening at the moment. Still, I plan to continue using the device throughout my pregnancy, hopefully with more consistent results.
To succeed this kind of device really needs to work every time. Still, the concept works, the design works, the app is clever so Bellabeat is definitely onto something.
Have you used the Bellabeat Shell to hear your unborn baby's heartbeat? Let us know how you got on in the comments.
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