Feeling tiny kicks and flutters in your stomach for the first time is one of the most exciting milestones of pregnancy.
But what if you’re experiencing that familiar flutter and you’re not pregnant? For some women, phantom kicks are something they will experience for years after giving birth.
Women expect to feel pint-size baby kicks when pregnant. Still, when these flutters continue to happen long after the postpartum period, many mamas begin to wonder if something else (other than pregnancy) is going on.
According to Tiffany Woodus, MD, FACOG, an OB-GYN in Texas, phantom kicks are the continued perception of fetal movement in the abdomen by a mother after pregnancy. In other words, they’re the light, quickening movements you may feel in your stomach days, weeks, months, or even years after childbirth.
When asked if they’re normal, Woodus says, “it’s hard to make a determination as to whether or not these sensations are normal, as we do not have a clear understanding of what they are or what causes them.”
This is mainly due to a lack of studies and research regarding phantom kicks. That said, we do have data from a small survey that asked women about their experiences with phantom kicks.
According to an online survey conducted by Disha Sasan and colleagues at Monash University in Australia, women can experience phantom fetal kicks for several years postpartum, with one woman feeling these flutters up to 28 years postpartum.
Of the 197 women surveyed, 40 percent said they experienced phantom kicks after giving birth for the first time. On average, the women surveyed felt phantom kicks for 6.8 years postpartum.
Researchers also discovered that 25 percent of the women described the experience as positive, while 27 percent felt upset or confused by the phantom kicks.
While the information from this survey gives us something to go on, Woodus says it’s important to note the many limitations of this research. First, the data is based on one small sample and hasn’t been reproduced.
She also points to the inherent associated bias of self-selection and recall bias. With that in mind, further research is needed to determine the role phantom kicks play in the postpartum period.
While we know some women experience phantom kicks, we don’t know with any certainty why they occur. Nevertheless, experts do have some theories that could explain the cause of these mysterious flutters.
Changes during pregnancy
Stretching of the uterine cavity or abdomen in pregnancy increases the growth of nerve receptors.
“When this happens, nerve receptors continue to fire or be stimulated to the extent that the brain thinks there is fetal movement — clearly even when none is present,” explains Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, double board-certified in OB-GYN and maternal fetal medicine, director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.
This is similar to phantom missing limb pain, when amputees continue to experience sensation after the limb is removed.
While the mechanism behind flutter kicks is unknown, researchers believe it may be related to changes in the somatosensory homunculus or proprioception during pregnancy.
Proprio-what? This is your body’s ability to sense its location and movements without consciously thinking about it. So walking without looking where your feet are or touching your nose with your eyes closed. Basically, the nerves in your stomach are on auto-pilot, giving you the sensation of phantom kicks, even without the baby.
Mental health concerns
Gaither also says phantom kicks may be causally related to an increased risk of mental health disorders, and more specifically, depression and anxiety.
Woodus says another theory points to a misattribution of postpartum recovery.
“This theory suggests the normal remodeling process that the body undergoes to restore the muscle and connective tissue to the pre-pregnancy state gets [mistaken for] phantom kicks,” she explains.
Heightened awareness of normal bodily functions
Phantom kicks may also be attributed to normal body functions.
“With this theory, the pregnant mother becomes conditioned to a heightened sense of awareness of fetal movement as it is an important marker of fetal health and well-being. However, this heightened sense of awareness then gets misattributed after delivery to normal body functions, most commonly digestive function like the movement of bowel gas,” Woodus adds.
So in other words, those “kicks” you’re feeling might really be gas, but pregnant-you got so used to baby kicks that your brain thinks that’s what they are.
No one knows exactly how long phantom kicks can last. Based on the Monash University survey results, on average, women can experience this sensation for about 7 years postpartum.
If you’re experiencing phantom kicks, Gaither says it’s a good idea to see your physician to ensure there’s no underlying medical issues present.
If all medical evaluation returns normal, then she says to consider them a normal variant in women who have experienced pregnancy in the past.
If you’re feeling these itty bitty flutters months or even years after childbirth, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Phantom kicks are a widely experienced sensation with a variety of causes. For the most part, they’re normal and not cause for alarm. But if you have concerns or you just need assurance from a medical expert, make an appointment to see your doctor.