The phenomenon of phantom pregnancy kicks

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Curled up on the couch one evening I felt a familiar flutter in my stomach – the type that would usually signal my unborn baby was somersaulting inside me, trying to nestle itself into a comfortable place. Which would have been just lovely had I, in fact, been pregnant!

After a moment of panic, followed by some speedy mental arithmetic (which reassured me I was definitely not with child), I turned to the first place many do when we experience odd symptoms: good old Dr Google. And to my relief I discovered it wasn't just me who felt this strange sensation long after my last pregnancy had ended.

Referred to as 'phantom pregnancy kicks', these physical feelings are encountered by many mums, who have been discussing this phenomenon on internet forums, websites and blogs for years. But why these occur, exactly, is still open to interpretation.

Someone who admits she would have originally been sceptical of such an occurrence is midwife and mum of two Rikki-Lee.  

"Professionally I had never heard of this," she admits. "I thought it was one of those 'oh yeah' eyebrow raising things, like when people tell you they know the exact moment they conceived or that they feel their baby moving at 13 weeks."

Although initially dismissing what she felt, Rikki-Lee eventually couldn't deny that she'd experienced these phantom kicks. "The first time I just thought I was imagining it and let it go," she reveals. "The second time I thought, 'hang on, that really happened - could I be pregnant?' But I did the maths and, no."

Similarly, Heidi, a mother of two, also felt these same tell-tale flutters around three months postpartum. "It was just a few times, but enough to make me remember it happened," she says. "When it did happen, it was only very briefly, like it was one kick or a roll.

"I would have that moment of 'oh! The baby's moving!' and then I'd realise he was actually asleep in his crib next to me."

According to Dr Nick Petrovic, Head of Clinic at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic, there are two main physiology-based theories to explain why mums like myself, Rikki-Lee and Heidi have experienced these 'kicks'.


"The first [theory] is that following pregnancy, the uterus can take time to settle," he says. "Therefore, particularly in the short period following pregnancy, as the uterus contracts, a woman may confuse these sensations for kicks.

"Because the uterus can take several months to return to its previous state a mother may experience the sensation of kicks for long periods following pregnancy."

"The second [theory] is that during pregnancy a woman becomes aware of uterine movements and sensations for the first time, and following pregnancy these sensations are more easily recognised," Dr Petrovic says.

"Twitches or movements in or around the uterus which would not have been picked up before pregnancy become familiar sensations, and because a woman tends to pay very close attention to these sensations during pregnancy this habit can follow on into postpartum experiences."

Jane Barry, a midwife and registered child health nurse, agrees that the strength of our muscle memory can play a large role in why some mums still feel the sensation of a baby kicking inside them months – or even years – after pregnancy.

"Some women seem to be particularly sensitive to baby's movements during their pregnancy," she says. "It's such a distinctive feeling that seems to affect this likelihood of muscle memory and nerve memory long after the baby is born."

Barry also points out that when you consider the confined location from which these phantom kicks are coming from, and the fact they all share the same muscle group, it's easy to become confused about what it is exactly you are feeling."The nerve endings which supply the bladder, the bowel and the uterus are millimetres apart from each other," she explains. 

While we're in that region, Barry also warns to beware of gas as the culprit. "The sensation of wind moving through your bowel can be very similar to having a baby moving," she says. "I mean, we've all had that sensation of 'oh my Gosh it almost feels as though I've got a baby in there'."

While Rikki-Lee eventually assumed her experience was related to wind or muscle memory, and Heidi concluded it was her internal organs all moving back into position after giving birth, it still remains a mystery as far as the wider medical fraternity are concerned.

As there is little scientific information on this unusual postpartum activity, most can be quick to dismiss it. Yet as Barry so eloquently states, there will always be events in relation to pregnancy and parenting that defy logic: "[While] science and evidence has to form our decision making about things, there are some things that just cannot be explained."

So if you too experience that familiar baby flutter from within, just enjoy it. After all, it's a far more pleasant thought than bad gas!