OBJECTIVE: To find patterns characteristic of maternal heart rates recorded by an electronic fetal monitor and compare them with concomitant fetal heart rate (FHR) patterns. METHODS: Maternal heart rates and FHRs during active labor and delivery were simultaneously recorded in 26 parturients with singleton pregnancies in vertex presentation. The FHRs were obtained by an external ultrasound transducer or via a spiral scalp electrode and maternal heart rates by a triple-wire cable with electrocardiographic electrodes attached to the chest. Representative tracings of 30-60 minutes duration were selected from all stages of labor and after delivery of the placenta. Quantitative assessments were carried out under guidelines from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development after blinding the source of these tracings. Patterns were compared by appropriate statistical analyses. RESULTS: Baseline maternal heart rates were significantly lower and their variability significantly higher than FHRs during all stages of labor. Maternal heart rates showed no decelerations; the proportion of tracings with accelerations increased as labor advanced, most of them coinciding with uterine contractions or bearing down efforts. The FHRs had both decelerations and accelerations. However, tracings with only accelerations (and no decelerations) were observed in decreasing frequency as labor advanced. Maternal accelerations had higher amplitudes and longer durations than fetal accelerations, especially in the second stage of labor. CONCLUSION: Maternal heart rate patterns recorded by electronic fetal monitors closely resemble fetal patterns. Baseline "fetal bradycardia," the absence of decelerations in the second stage of labor, and marked accelerations coinciding with uterine contractions may suggest a maternal heart rate rather than an FHR recording.