Some women say they can actually still feel baby kicks years after giving birth. Here, experts break down the phenomenon of phantom kicks.

By Melissa Mills
February 09, 2021
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Four months after Chrissy Teigen opened up about the heartbreaking loss of her baby boy, Jack, during her second trimester, the star shed light on something people who've been pregnant sometimes experience: phantom baby kicks.

"My little Jack would have been born this week so I'm a bit off," the star tweeted along with a video of what appeared to be little movements in her abdomen. "I truly feel kicks in my belly, but it's not phantom." Soon enough, other women began pouring in with their experiences of faux fetal movement—either after a miscarriage or childbirth.

As crazy as it sounds, phantom baby kicks are real—and can occur long after a pregnancy. Here, we break down exactly what's going on.

What Are Phantom Kicks?

Phantom kicks after birth or pregnancy loss, or flutters that mimic fetal movements during pregnancy, are actually pretty normal and can happen days, months, or even years later.

According to a 2019 survey of 197 women who had previously been pregnant conducted by the Monash University in Australia, 40 percent of participants reported feeling phantom kicks after a being pregnant. On average, the women felt what they described as "real kicks" or "flutters" for 6.8 years postpartum, though one woman reported feeling the sensation 28 years after giving birth.

Credit: Getty Images.

What Causes Phantom Kicks?

While these kicks can be attributed to a heightened awareness of what's going on in your body, gas, or your body recovering postpartum, there is simply a lack of data surrounding the experience so experts can't explain it with 100 percent certainty.

"We all have sensations in our abdomens on and off, some more than others, usually related to [gastrointestinal] GI motility and digestion," says Marjorie Greenfield, M.D., vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland and author of The Working Woman's Pregnancy Book. "I know personally that I have had sensations that 'if I didn't know better' I might think were kicks."

Some experts believe feeling phantom kicks after pregnancy might even be similar to phantom missing limb pain, where someone might feel sensations in a body part that's no longer there.

"There are other phantom movements/feelings/pain that many people feel when they have had a loss like loss of a limb," says Tamika Auguste, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University School of Medicine and interim chair of Women's and Infants' Services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. "We also know that a woman can really think she is pregnant and have actual symptoms (swelling abdomen, perceived movement, loss of a period, etc.)." 

In Teigen's case, and in the case of other parents who may have experienced a loss, there may even be an emotional and physical component related to the trauma of a miscarriage or stillbirth.

"The mind and the body are not separate entities and I am certain that an increased awareness of sensation due to grief, for example, could lead to more sensations, and maybe even changes in GI motility," says Dr. Greenfield.

Is There Any Reason to Worry?

Most likely no, though Dr. Auguste recommends discussing any worries with your health care provider.

"I don't think a feeling of a baby kicking is likely to represent a serious physical medical condition that needs a workup unless there is pain or abdominal distension," says Dr. Greenfield.

And while there's probably nothing to be worried about physically, it's important to note that these phantom kicks could exacerbate the emotional aspects of pregnancy loss for some.

"Although we found no significant association between phantom kicks and postnatal depression or anxiety, our results suggest that the influence of phantom kicks on mood should not be neglected," the Australia researchers found. "Content analysis of women's responses to phantom kicks suggested that the experience could exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, particularly in the case of stillbirth." That's why it's so important to see your doctor if you're concerned.

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