Busting myths about movement in the womb

Decreased movement is sometimes a life-saving signal to intervene.
Decreased movement is sometimes a life-saving signal to intervene.  Photo: Getty Images

One of the most precious parts of pregnancy is feeling your baby kicking around. Baby's movements can also give clues to how healthy they are - vital information when an average of 33 Australian babies will be stillborn this week.

But many women are confused about what it means if their baby seems a little lazy. Well-meaning friends and even health professionals sometimes give out-dated and incorrect advice.

Fortunately, a team of experts has developed evidence-based guidelines to cut through the myths, and put your mind at ease.

When should you start feeling movement?

If this is your first pregnancy, you'll usually notice the first "butterflies" by 20 weeks, and feel daily movements from about 24 weeks of pregnancy. What you feel can be affected by the position of your placenta and your weight.

Should you drink something cold and sweet and lie down if you think baby is moving less?

Most women have heard a glass of juice or lemonade will wake a sleepy baby in the womb. Staying hydrated in pregnancy is wise - but it won't make bub get her groove on.

The official clinical guidelines from The Australian and New Zealand Stillbirth Alliance state: "There is no evidence to support this advice. Foetal movements have been shown not to be altered by intravenous glucose administration [a sugar drip], or by a recent meal."

However, if you've been slammed all day and haven't been paying attention to your belly, then by all means stop and rest. Lying down on your side, you should expect to feel at least 10 movements within two hours. However, you know your baby's usual movements best. And the guidelines also say your concerns override any rule about a certain number of movements.

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Will the hospital be happy to assess you or annoyed for wasting time?

If you think baby is moving less, hospitals, doctors and midwives are almost always happy to set your mind at ease - and theirs. They know that encouraging pregnant women to come in sooner rather than later occasionally buys enough time to intervene and save a new life.

The guidelines' advice is not to wait. They stipulate: "All women should be advised to contact their health care provider if they have any concern about decreased or absent fetal movements and be advised not to wait until the next day."

Nicole Ireland from Sands Queensland (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support) agrees: "I know mother's intuition is a bit of an old-fashioned term but I think there is something in there that you know what your baby's typical movements are. Don't feel like you're overreacting, it's important you go and talk to someone and have yourself checked out."

Maybe baby is sleeping?

Babies in the womb do need their sleep. According to the guidelines, your little one usually sleeps for 20 to 40 minutes at a time.

Isn't it normal for baby to move less at the end of pregnancy?

Their movements may change slightly as your little one gets cramped, but the number and pattern of movements you've come to know shouldn't change. There's no evidence that healthy babies move less often in late pregnancy or in preparation for labour.

If your doctor or midwife dismisses your concerns, should you be reassured?

Nicole says: "Anyone who has concerns during their pregnancy about decreased foetal movement should either go back to their care provider again, or see an alternate care provider. It's always best to have these things checked out as early as possible."

I'm probably just anxious because I've lost a baby before

One in four women have experienced pregnancy loss, and it's inevitable their next pregnancy will be a tense time. Nicole knows this from her own experience and says if you're anxious for any reason, including past pregnancy loss or a high risk pregnancy, choose your doctor or midwife carefully.

"One of the most important things you can do is to select a care provider who understands what you're going through and is willing to see you as often as you need to. I was very fortunate that I had an obstetrician who was happy to see me as regularly as I liked, which made a very big difference to me," she says.

We can hardly bear thinking about it and we still don't know all the reasons babies are stillborn. But many of these deaths are preventable. Decreased movement is sometimes a life-saving signal to intervene before the unthinkable happens.