Fetal Movements: What to Expect Throughout Pregnancy

Those kicks, jabs, and twists are a memorable part of pregnancy that show the unborn baby is growing bigger and stronger. Here's what to expect throughout pregnancy—and even in labor.

Belly of pregnant woman
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One of pregnancy's most memorable moments is feeling your unborn child move for the first time. It's a sign that the fetus is growing bigger and stronger. It's also a reassuring milestone, reminding you of how far you have come in the pregnancy and your new role as a parent.

Along with those feelings of reassurance, you may wonder what to expect and look out for. When will you feel the movements? When will others feel them? How much movement will there be? What should you do if they stop?

Here's what to know about fetal movements and what to expect throughout pregnancy.

What Are Fetal Movements?

Fetal movements are a fetus's motions in the uterus (womb). These movements can be extending and flexing the arms and legs, or full body shifts. When you feel the fetus move for the first time, it's called quickening. The way people experience fetal movements differs from person to person and from one pregnancy to another.

Some people describe the first movements they feel as a flutter, a stir, a bubbling, or a wriggle. As the pregnancy progresses, the fetal movements become stronger and are often described as kicks, pinches, jabs, and twists.

At first, it can be hard to distinguish fetal movements from gas, muscle twitching, hunger pangs, or other bodily motions. But as your pregnancy progresses and the movements become more forceful, they should become easier to identify.

What Can You Expect During Each Trimester?

You are unlikely to feel fetal movements during the first trimester (week 1 to 13). Your unborn baby starts moving around 12 weeks of pregnancy, but you won't be able to feel it yet because the fetus is still very small. Movements at this stage of pregnancy can be detected during ultrasound scans.

The second trimester (week 14 to 26) is when you are most likely to feel fetal movements for the first time.

"Fetal movement is experienced beginning in the second half of the second trimester and the third trimester. The movement may only feel like a flutter at first and then become stronger as the baby grows," says Julia Cooper M.D., FACOG, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Kidz Medical Services in South Florida.

Pregnant people usually feel fetal movements for the first time between weeks 13 and 25 of pregnancy. If it's your first pregnancy, you are likely to feel fetal movements for the first time later, around the 20th week of pregnancy. In comparison, people who have been pregnant before can feel movements earlier, sometimes as early as the 13th week.

Once you have felt the movements, they should continue throughout your pregnancy and even in labor. In the third trimester (27 to 40 weeks), the movements should become stronger and more regular until the end of the trimester, when there isn't much room for the fetus to move. Even then, you should feel the baby move regularly.

Some people find that it is easier to feel fetal movements when they:

  • Sit still
  • Listen to music
  • Lie on their side
  • Rub their belly gently
  • Eat or drink something sweet

"Babies have sleep cycles in utero just like we do," says Dr. Cooper. "As the baby matures, these sleep cycles become longer, so there are longer intervals where the baby isn't moving much. But activity should return to normal as soon as they are awake. Babies also respond to maternal glucose levels, so they are more active after the pregnant person has a meal," she says.

However, you shouldn't try to force fetal movements. Instead, you should pay attention to the norm for your pregnancy and note any patterns. Doing this will help you spot any changes quickly, especially reduced or no more movements, which are signs you should see a health care provider.

Can Your Weight Make It Hard To Feel Movements?

No, it can't. Previously, it was thought that slimmer people feel fetal movements quicker, but research has proven that people who weigh more feel fetal movements just as soon.

In general, overweight people should experience fetal movements similar to their non-obese counterparts, says Dr. Cooper. That said, their partners may have a challenging time feeling it from the outside, or seeing their abdomen move from the outside.

When Can Others Feel the Fetal Movements?

It's usually a delight for others to feel the kicks and jabs over your belly. Sharing the twists and punches you experience can help other family members bond with their incoming member. Other people may be able to feel the fetal movements as early as the 24th week of pregnancy, but it often happens closer to the 28th week.

Should You Count Fetal Movements?

You should only count fetal movements if your health care provider tells you to. If not, you should get accustomed to your unborn child's typical movements instead.

Note the norm for this pregnancy and report to your health care provider immediately if you notice reduced or no movements. Some experts consider ten kicks in two hours to be the minimum number of movements you should feel. If you feel less than that, you should see your obstetrician.

What Should You Do if You Can't Feel Fetal Movements?

If you can't feel any fetal movements by week 24 of pregnancy, you should speak to your health care provider.

If you notice a marked decrease in movements or no more movements, you should contact your health care provider immediately.

You should consult your health care provider as soon as possible, so they can make the fetus is doing well.

How long to wait if the unborn baby is not moving

If you notice the fetus not moving as much or not moving at all, you should not wait. You should seek medical attention at once.

It is important to do this as quickly as possible, so your unborn baby can be seen by a health care provider who will ensure they are fine.

"If the baby is consistently moving less, then the pregnant person should be evaluated immediately by their obstetrician," says Dr. Cooper.

Fetal movements are a distinct part of a healthy pregnancy. No two pregnancies are alike, so it's essential to note what is normal for you. Once felt, fetal movements should continue throughout pregnancy and even in labor. See your health care provider immediately if you feel your unborn baby isn't moving as much as usual.

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