When I was pregnant the first time around, I expected my baby-to-be’s initial movements to feel like a jolt. I was fully prepared to have a tiny foot boot me from the inside with a wee whap and I’d joyfully announce, “The baby kicked!” I was waiting for the dramatic thump, but that’s not what happened. Instead, one day about 19 weeks in, I got a subtle sensation. I was lounging on the sofa after dinner with the cat splayed across my belly when it suddenly felt as if I had swallowed a couple of drunken butterflies. The cat noticed nothing.
But was it the baby or just pregnancy gas? Some days, it was impossible to know the difference. And where were my big, powerful kicks? I asked Heather Bartos, an OB/GYN, mom of two and medical director at be. Women’s Health & Wellness in Cross Roads, Texas, to explain.
Your baby flips and flops way before you can actually feel it. In fact, your healthcare provider can spot spontaneous fetal movements, like baby stretches or arm wiggles, around eight weeks' gestation. This is a sign that your baby’s central nervous system is developing as it should. However, they are still far too small (about an inch long) at this point for you to feel anything.
For most first-time moms, those early flutters, also called quickening, can happen anywhere from 18 to 22 weeks into pregnancy. “But that’s not a hard and fast rule,” says Bartos. “I actually felt my first baby move at 16 weeks—it felt like gas bubbles.” How big your baby is and the position of your uterus also play a role in when you feel those first movements. “You’ll feel movement when your uterus is at the same level as your belly button and the baby is large enough, usually weighing about one pound,” explains Bartos. However, moms who’ve already delivered a baby often feel movements sooner, even as early as the 12-week mark. “Not only do these moms know what the sensation feels like already, but the abdominal wall of second-time moms relaxes early, allowing her to feel movement earlier, too.”
If you don’t feel your baby moving by week 22, let your midwife or physician know. "There are many reasons you might not have felt your baby move yet. For instance, women with some extra weight don’t feel the movements as much,” says Bartos. “The position of your placenta may be muffling the sensations. Or, rarely, it may be something more serious, such as a genetic issue that delays movement."
The first movements you feel from baby won’t feel much like a kick at all—at least not at first. “For me, the first time I felt my baby move, it felt like I had too much carbonation,” says Bartos. “Other times, my stomach would flip as if I was on a roller coaster.” Most women equate early movements to the sensation of gas bubbles. Those subtle flutters often morph into bigger, more distinct movements around week 22. “It’ll start to feel more like a karate kick, punch or even a scratch,” says Bartos. “Babies have sharp fingernails.” For some women, however, the sensation will always be a bit muffled. “If your placenta sits on the front of the uterus, called an anterior placenta, it can tamp down the feeling,” explains Bartos.
Your partner, parents, siblings and friends will usually be able to feel the baby’s kicks when you’re around 24 to 28 weeks pregnant. But Bartos says when and even if others can feel the baby move really depends on the position of your placenta. An anterior placenta makes it more difficult for family and friends to feel the baby move. “I had an anterior placenta with my first and my spouse never felt the baby move,” says Bartos.
Babies stretch, flex and wiggle, in part to test out their developing neurological system. But new research out of Trinity College Dublin shows there’s another reason they’re so wiggly in utero: Apparently, all that turning, kicking and stretching helps to stimulate what scientists call molecular interaction, which ultimately turns cells and tissues into strong bones and joints. So even though all that kicking can be a pain in the bladder, it’s a good thing!
While it may seem like your baby saves his or her gymnastics routine for the exact time you settle into bed, that’s not really the case. “It’s likely all about perception,” says Bartos. “In the evening, moms-to-be tend to be less active. They’re relaxing and not distracted by everything else going on, so they’re more in tune with their baby’s movements.” At the same time, if your meal was capped with caffeine or something sugary, that could spur the baby's movements. Your baby-to-be is simply responding to a blood-sugar kick, just the way you would.
You will feel baby move with somersault-like motions between 24 and 30 weeks. “This is when the size of the baby is optimal for moving; your uterus still has room in it and baby is large enough to cause a ruckus,” Bartos explains. Once you are in your third trimester, however, the wiggle room in your uterus shrinks and you will notice an activity slowdown. For instance, your baby’s movements might feel more isolated, like one big jab at a time. Then, as you inch closer to your due date, say around 34 weeks, those sharp kicks will morph into a more ballet-like, rolling sensation, says Bartos. “You might also begin to feel cervical pain, which is like a lightning bolt down the vagina. This can occur when baby settles into a position that hits the cervix.”
It’s recommended that you start counting your baby’s kicks around 28 to 32 weeks—sometimes earlier if your pregnancy is considered high-risk. Counting kicks is a simple way to keep tabs on your baby’s movement pattern and to spot any changes that may indicate a potential problem with your pregnancy. Everyday at a consistent time (generally when you feel baby move most), sit comfortably with your feet up in a dark, quiet room. “Place your hand on your abdomen to help drown out the extra stimulus,” says Bartos. Next, count each movement of any kind until you reach 10 kicks, rolls, flutters or flops. This could take less than 30 minutes or up to two hours. Record your pattern and refer to it daily.
If your baby’s normal movements change, try having something to drink or eat and see if that gets your little one moving. If not, check in with your midwife or OB, who can make sure nothing has changed with your baby’s health—your baby might simply be sleeping, or in a new position, but it could be something more serious like low amniotic fluid. To make kick-counting easier, you can use a free app like Baby Kicks Monitor or Kickme - Baby Kicks Counter.