Phantom Kicks 2023: Is It Normal & Why Do You Feel Them
During pregnancy, women become more aware of the goings-on in their bodies. Postpartum awareness of the baby’s needs persists. Many women report feeling abdominal sensations like kicks or flutters, similar to ones experienced during pregnancy. These are called phantom kicks, and they can be experienced for years after birth.
These phantom kicks can be pretty convincing. Although some might find them comforting, others may find them distressing. Let’s find out more about them.
What Are Phantom Kicks?
Phantom kicks are described as fetal-like movements in the abdomen after the birth of the infant. These sensations have been reported to occur even years after childbirth. Phantom kicks can be perceived as something comforting, or they can be distressing to the person.
Women may start experiencing flutters or kicks in the second trimester of pregnancy. The flutters, called quickening, usually begin sometime after 16 weeks gestation. As the fetus grows and gains strength, it is not surprising that the flutters become more discrete and forceful until they present as kicks within the abdomen after 20 weeks.
During pregnancy, expectant mothers are encouraged to monitor fetal movement. It is recommended to monitor fetal movement to learn how much activity the baby performs in a time period. Pregnant women are asked to monitor for a decrease in normal fetal movement, as a risk of fetal death. A heightened sense of protection towards the fetus makes them more aware of and in tune with the body and the baby’s movement for any changes. These movements may not be very important in judging fetal health until after 36 weeks — of 40; before that time, the patterns of movement just aren’t relevant.
Women described phantom kicks as feeling just like the baby kicks or flutters they experienced during pregnancy. The experience of phantom kicks sensations can be very convincing, like real kicks.
These phantom kicks after birth may be comparable to phantom limb pain or sensations after an amputation. People with loss of limbs frequently report pain or sensations as if the limb were still present. In the case of post-pregnancy phantom kicks, they occur after there is no longer a fetus present.
The experience of phantom kicks differs from what is called phantom pregnancies. In pseudocyesis or phantom pregnancy, a person believes they are pregnant and have physiological changes like nausea and weight gain. While a phantom pregnancy is a psychiatric illness, women who report phantom kicks are not experiencing a thought disorder because they know they are not pregnant.
If you are unsure if what you are experiencing are phantom fetal kicks or symptoms of pregnancy, consider a pregnancy test or reaching out to your medical provider.
What Causes Phantom Kicks?
There is no clear reason why women experience phantom kicks. However, physicians sometimes attribute them to the body returning to normal after childbirth, i.e., reforming their non-pregnancy anatomy, normal physiological functions, or mental health issues. The most likely explanation is simple neurology.
The cause for phantom kicks is not known yet. A study by Monash University attempted to document the prevalence of phantom kicks after birth, i.e., how common these are. In this small study, they found that 39.6% of a sample of 197 women reported phantom fetal kicks after their first pregnancy. Women have reported feeling kick sensations long after their last pregnancy.
Some causes explored in this study were the following:
As the female body accommodates the growth of a baby, it suffers many changes in the abdominal area. With the growth of the uterus, the skin stretches, the abdominal muscles separate, organs move, joints loosen, and ligaments stretch.
Restoration of muscle tone and connective tissues postpartum may take up to 12 months. However, this may be a cause for the increased abdominal sensations for some women. Thinning of the abdominal wall may make the perception of normal movement of the bowel and colon more perceptible. Yet, postpartum recovery makes phantom kicks that occur long after the body has recovered especially mysterious.
It could also be related to regular bodily functions like gas or gastrointestinal discomfort. There is a lot at stake with pregnancy, and women understandably fixate on every little sensation that likely happened before but which wasn’t noticed. During pregnancy, this awareness becomes a part of a woman’s life. After giving birth, these should decrease back to normal. However, the woman, no longer with a fetus, may continue this heightened awareness of common abdominal movements that would most likely be ignored before.
In fact, these gastrointestinal movements can be picked up during fetal monitoring, so it’s not surprising that women experience the phantom kick phenomenon outside of pregnancy.
In the Monash study, no association was found between sensations of fetal movement and thinking disorders such as delusions or hallucinations. Nor were there any correlations with depression or mental health issues that would indicate these as a cause for phantom kicks.
We cannot ignore that women who experience phantom kicks after fetal death, miscarriage, or traumatic birth, may end up suffering depression. But this has nothing to do with phantom sensations but with the fact that such losses are absolutely devastating. It is trauma.
26% of people reported these phantom kicks affected their well-being across a range from comforting to upsetting. People suffering from postpartum depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, however, could experience worsening symptoms that phantom kicks may trigger.
If you are experiencing phantom kicks and find them alarming, reach out to your medical provider. Phantom kicks may affect your mood or make you more anxious or depressed. Reach out to a mental health provider or contact your medical insurance provider for options. Also, if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 to talk to a trained Crisis Counselor.
What Is The Most Likely Cause After Considering Physical And Mental Implications?
Phantom kicks may be nothing more than neurology–a quirky effect similar to deja vu or the muscle memory that drives you home without your remembering the route. In the neuroscience field of neuroplasticity, it is stated, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Depending on the importance a woman puts into her sensations, the kicks during pregnancy can wire the very neurons that fire spontaneously after delivery.
Consider this: Have you ever left your phone at home but could swear you still feel it vibrating from time to time? Feeling what is perceived as kicks may just be the same thing.
How Long Do Phantom Kicks Last?
Women have reported that these phantom kicks last for minutes. Some experience them every day or multiple times a day. As for the duration, people have reported them for years after birth.
According to the data from the Monash University survey, the women experienced phantom kicks on average 7.5 years after delivery, multiple times a day. Phantom kicks in the survey were reported to also occur from daily to weekly.
There is no scientific consensus on how to get rid of phantom kicks. It might be beneficial to discuss with your medical provider to distinguish a possible physiological cause from a possible psychiatric cause.
In the case of neuroplasticity described above, phantom kicks are harmless. Most women, once they learn something is harmless, no longer stress over it.
The Bottom Line
It is hard to deny that during and after pregnancy, both men and women have a heightened awareness of the baby’s needs. The female body itself may continue to sense phantom sensations similar to those of when the baby was being carried.
The scientific evidence indicates that experiencing phantom kicks may be more common than we think. This can be a good and enchanting experience for some but for others a scary, bothersome, or alarming sensation. Still, there is currently not enough scientific information on this phenomenon. Women would benefit from further research to continue improving postnatal care and add a perspective to phenomena that trouble women. In this way, they can accept the comfort of knowing nothing dangerous is happening.
+ 8 sources
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- Journal of Women’s Health. (2021). ‘Phantom Kicks’: Women’s Subjective Experience of Fetal Kicks After the Postpartum Period | Journal of Women’s Health. [online] Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/jwh.2019.8191.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Kick Counts (Fetal Movement Counting): Purpose & How To. [online] Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23497-kick-counts.
- Subedi, B. and Grossberg, G.T. (2011). Phantom Limb Pain: Mechanisms and Treatment Approaches. Pain Research and Treatment, [online] 2011, pp.1–8. doi:10.1155/2011/864605.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Pseudocyesis (False Pregnancy): Causes, Tests & Treatment. [online] Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24255-pseudocyesis.
- Womenshealth.gov. (2021). Body changes and discomforts | Office on Women’s Health. [online] Available at: https://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/youre-pregnant-now-what/body-changes-and-discomforts.
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2015). Stillbirth may increase women’s long term risk for depression. [online] Available at: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/stillbirth-may-increase-womens-long-term-risk-depression.
- Womenshealth.gov. (2017). Postpartum depression | Office on Women’s Health. [online] Available at: https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression.
- Puderbaugh, M. and Emmady, P.D. (2022). Neuroplasticity. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557811/#:~:text=It%20is%20defined%20as%20the,traumatic%20brain%20injury%20(TBI).