Throughout your labor, you and the medical staff will no doubt be wondering how your baby is handling all the excitement. That's why monitoring was created. The least invasive type is intermittent external monitoring (also known as auscultation), in which your labor nurse uses a stethoscope or handheld ultrasound device to check the baby's heart rate every 15 minutes or so. The advantage to this method is that you can keep moving, which helps promote more efficient contractions.
External electronic monitoring involves strapping two electronic devices to the mother's belly to measure the fetal heart rate and contractions. The intensity of the contractions is shown in waves on a printout, while the fetal heartbeat can be observed on a video screen. (One great way for your partner to help out in this situation is to watch the printout and tell you when the contraction has peaked and is on the downhill swing.)
Internal electronic monitoring -- performed by attaching a small electrode to your baby's scalp -- is the most effective form, but it renders you immobile and is generally reserved for situations in which there is reason to be concerned about the baby.
Several recent studies have resulted in a popular bias against fetal monitoring. These reports tend to indicate that monitoring can result, at worst, in an unnecessary cesarean -- due to false signals of fetal distress -- and may increase discomfort and slow the progress of labor by immobilizing the mother. But the bottom line is that monitoring remains a valuable tool that can provide important reassurance for both doctors and parents.