Yes, Phantom Baby Kicks Are Real—Here's Why They Happen

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

Feeling baby kicks is one of the joys of pregnancy for many people. But sometimes people feel these kicks after their baby is born—or even after a pregnancy loss. Called phantom kicks, this strange phenomenon of feeling random kicks in your abdomen when you're not pregnant is real, normal, and more common than you'd think.

The causes of faux fetal kicks are typically unknown, although gastrointestinal sensations or postpartum abdominal muscle healing may be at play. While scientists aren't exactly sure why these strange post-pregnancy abdominal flutters occur, it is a confirmed phenomenon. So, as crazy as it sounds, if you're experiencing phantom baby kicks, you're not alone. Here, we break down what's going on.

What Are Phantom Kicks?

Phantom kicks after giving birth or experiencing pregnancy loss are flutters that mimic fetal movements during pregnancy. They can be physically felt—or even seen across the abdomen—just like fetal kicks during pregnancy. It's unclear why some people experience them and others don't, but they are actually pretty normal and can happen days, months, or even years postpartum.

In fact, according to a study of 197 people published in 2021, nearly 40% of participants reported feeling phantom kicks after being pregnant. Of those who had the sensations, 27% described them as "nostalgic or comforting," while 25.7% said they "felt confused or upset by the experience."

An image of a woman and her baby.
Getty Images.

What Causes Phantom Kicks?

Experts typically attribute these kicks to a heightened awareness of what's going on in your body, gas, or your body recovering postpartum. However, the exact mechanisms causing this phenomenon are unclear as there is a lack of data on the experience. Ultimately, experts can't yet explain it with 100% certainty.

Gastrointestinal sensations

Gas and digestion likely contribute to these sensations. "We all have sensations in our abdomens on and off, some more than others, usually related to [gastrointestinal] 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."

Nerves misfiring

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. This happens when nerves send the wrong signals.

"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 vice chair of Women's and Infants' Services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.

Mind-body connection and grief

We also know that a person who is not pregnant can really think they're pregnant and have real symptoms (such as a swelling abdomen, perceived movement, and loss of a period), explains Dr. Auguste. This is called pseudocyesis or false pregnancy. In the case of people 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.

How Long Can Phantom Kicks Last?

There isn't a lot of scientific research on phantom baby kicks. However, according to anecdotal evidence, these sensations are most likely to happen in the early months and years after childbirth or pregnancy loss. But there is a great variation among individuals—and some people report feeling phantom kicks many years after pregnancy.

On average, the participants in the 2021 study felt what they described as "real kicks" or "flutters" for 6.8 years postpartum, though one person reported feeling the sensation 28 years after giving birth.

Should You Worry About Phantom Kicks?

Most likely there is no reason to worry about phantom baby kicks, though Dr. Auguste recommends discussing any worries with a 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 have an impact on your mental health.

"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 researchers concluded. "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 a medical provider if the sensation is troubling you or causing you any pain—physically or emotionally.

Key Takeaways

While little research has been done to fully explain the phenomenon, what is known is that phantom kicks are common, normal, and rarely a cause for concern. One possible cause is heightened awareness of bodily sensations, such as gas, nerves misfiring, or abdominal muscle twitches, that feel similar to real fetal kicks. If you're experiencing phantom kicks, check in with a doctor if you have any questions or concerns. While some people enjoy this reminder of pregnancy, others find it upsetting, particularly in the case of pregnancy loss.

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  1. "Phantom Kicks": Women's Subjective Experience of Fetal Kicks After the Postpartum Period. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2021.

  2. Phantom Limb Pain. StatPearls. 2022.

  3. Biosychosocial view to pseudocyesis: a narrative review. Int J Reprod Biomed. 2017.

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