Kicking on: women feel phantom baby movements decades after pregnancy

Woman suffering from stomach ache
Woman suffering from stomach ache Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Women can experience phantom baby-like kicks up to three decades after giving birth finds new Australian research, which also explored how the sensations make women feel.

The study, conducted by Monash University, found that 40 per cent of the 197 women surveyed, had felt phantom fetal kicks after their pregnancy. On average, women reported feeling the kicks for almost seven years post-partum, describing the physical sensations as "convincing", "real kicks" or "flutters"

For 20 per cent of women, the kicks happened on a daily basis, while 40 per cent experienced them once a week.

"It felt like the first time I felt my baby kick. Little flutters. Then it became more distinguishable as a kick," one respondent wrote of the sensation.

"[They were] convincing enough that I took a pregnancy test even though my husband had had a vasectomy," said another.

But while 15 per cent of those surveyed described the kicks as "nostalgic," and 14 per cent reported feeling happy and comforted by them, the sensation left 27 per cent of women confused or upset.

Two women in the study whose children were stillborn, reported "kick-like" sensations following delivery. One woman, who delivered at 24 weeks, said of the experience, "It made me feel really upset that my body was still fooled into thinking I was still pregnant", adding that she felt the kicks were her body "returning to normal combined with wishful thinking that my baby did not die."

So what causes these phantom kicks?

The authors argue that the kicks are unlikely to be delusions or hallucinations, "or a result of postpartum depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues". But they have a number of other theories.

Advertisement

"We believe that in the months post-delivery, some sensations of phantom kicks are probably attributable to bodily recover," they note. However, as women continue to experience these sensations for many years post-partum recovery cannot be the only contributor to the experience."

The researchers also highlight that phantom kicks have considerable similarities to phantom limb syndrome, which occurs when individuals with a missing or amputated limb feel sensations that suggest the limb is still attached. Additionally, they note, around 33 per cent of female mastectomy patients report phantom breast sensations soon after surgery with some continuing up to 12 years post surgery.

But they speculate that the explanation might be even more simple - mistaking normal bodily sensations for baby kicks. And given that most belly movements during pregnancy are quickly attributed to the baby, they argue that it's probably not a big surprise. "The mother pays close attention to these sensations and bonds with her baby and obstetric care providers direct her to pay close attention to any reduction in the frequency of movements," the authors note. "Thus, the mother's self model of her body, and the origin of sensations within it, is updated."

As such, women who experience phantom kicks may not re-update their conceptual model of the boyd following birth, "and attribute normal digestive sensations to a foetus that is no longer there."

While further research is needed, the team note that the study, which is the first of its kind, has important implications for a woman's physical and mental health. "Phantom kicks may be a risk factor for depression and anxiety in vulnerable women," they note, reflecting on those participants who experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or traumatic delivery.

But along with the focus on emotional wellbeing, there's another compelling question the findings raise-  just how reliable are kick counts?

"Kick frequency is an important indicator of foetal health in pregnant women," the authors note, explaining that if women experience foetal kicks in the absence of a foetus, "then their perception of true foetal movement may be unreliable."