Are you newly pregnant and wondering whether that flutter you felt was your baby moving, or just gas? Or are you further along in your pregnancy and wondering how frequently you should be feeling your baby move?
Fetal movement varies from one woman to the next, but it can also be used as an indicator of a baby’s health or distress. Here’s what you need to know about your baby’s movement in utero — including when you can expect to feel it, what’s considered normal and healthy, and even some tips on how to get your kiddo kicking.
What Is Quickening in Pregnancy?
The term “quickening” is used to describe the moment a mother first feels her baby move in utero (1). A more medically accurate term is “first fetal movement.”
The root word of “quickening” means “living,” which — in less technologically advanced times — indicated the baby in a woman’s womb was indeed alive.
Today, we have ultrasounds and fetal heart monitors and other tools available to prove to us that our baby is indeed “alive” well before the point of quickening. But for women in pre-modern eras, the quickening was her first real indication her baby was healthy and her pregnancy viable.
When Does First Fetal Movement Occur?
Babies begin moving very early in pregnancy, so the term “first fetal movement” is itself a little misleading. The first fetal movement doesn’t refer to the first time a baby moves in utero, but rather the first time the mother feels it.
For first-time mothers, they may first feel their baby move between 16 to 25 weeks gestation. For women who have experienced previous pregnancies, they may feel the baby move as early as 13 weeks (2).
The uterine muscles are the muscles that first sense the fetal movements, not the abdominal muscles. Mothers who have been pregnant previously usually have more relaxed uterine muscles that are more sensitive to fetal movements and that is why they are usually felt earlier than in first pregnancies.
The wide variation in times when women feel the quickening is due to many factors, including:
- The activity level of the baby: Some babies are more active than others, and this may affect the frequency or strength of their kicks.
- The activity level of the mother: Active women are less likely to notice movement throughout the day than sedentary mothers.
- Familiarity with the feeling: Women who have experienced a previous pregnancy are more likely to notice and identify the feeling earlier than first-time mothers.
- Placement of the placenta: If the placenta is along the front of your uterus, it may be more challenging to feel the baby move.
- Size of the mother: Heavier Women may have to wait longer to feel their baby move externally when she puts her hand on her stomach. However, the research is unclear as to whether a mother’s weight affects her ability to feel the baby internally (3).
What Does it Feel Like When the Baby Moves?
When a baby is in utero, it’s very active. It’s stretching its arms and legs, kicking with excitement, jabbing you from the inside with its elbows and even rolling over or doing head-over-heel flips.
The strength, frequency, and sharpness of the movements will vary based on where you are in your pregnancy, and also how much room your little one still has left to move around. Something to remember is that the top of your uterus is still low at the earlier parts of pregnancy and when quickening tends to occur, so keep your senses targeted at your lower abdomen!
For these reasons, the sensations you may feel when your baby moves vary widely. Many women describe them as feeling like:
- Fluttering sensations.
- Sharp kicks.
- Slow stretching.
- Gentle pressure.
- Slow rolling.
- Muscle twitches.
If you are a first-time mother, it can be hard to distinguish your baby’s early movements from sensations like gas, feelings of hunger, intestinal rumblings, or other internal movements. After all, your internal organs are being compressed and things might feel a little different than normal.
However, you will soon become an expert at discerning internal twitches from baby flutters. As pregnancy progresses and the baby gets larger, the kicks and jabs of your little one will become stronger and more coordinated and you will have a better sense of when your baby is making a move. and the next time you become pregnant you’ll notice your baby’s movements much earlier.
What Does Activity In The Womb Mean?
Many women feel their little one kick and make flippant remarks like, “They’re going to be a soccer player!” And while it’s primarily done in fun, it’s hard not to wonder — if your child is super active while in your womb, are they going to be a super active toddler, too?
Turns out, prenatal activity is not a reliable predictor of postnatal temperament (4). While science has determined there may be some mild associations, there are also some inverse associations.
This means while some kids may be more active than average if they had a lot of movement in the womb, in some cases, it predicts the child will be less active once they’re born.
Some patients have asked me if they can tell the baby’s gender based on how much they are moving. There are no reliable studies that show any correlation between how often the baby moves and gender so all those predictions are just a myth!
Editor's Note:Dr. Njoud Jweihan, MD
How Often Should My Baby Move?
Your baby will move up to 30 times an hour by the third trimester, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to feel every movement. Additionally, frequent sleeping may cause your baby to be inactive for a period of time so you won’t be able to feel them move at all.
Generally, the movement will be most frequent toward the end of the second trimester and into the beginning of the third. By the end of your pregnancy, you can expect activity to slow down a bit, but not completely, as your baby starts to run out of room to move.
Mothers usually tend to feel more movement at night time due to changing blood sugar levels, and well it might be that baby is training you for those nights to come once he or she is born! Also, keep an eye for hiccups around week 24 which can be felt as rhythmic soft steady movements.
If you’re concerned about your baby’s movement, count the number of movements you can detect within a two-hour period. If you feel at least 10, it’s considered to be within the normal range. If at any point you do not feel the baby move for prolonged periods of time, it is never a bad idea to contact your doctor for more guidance.
How Can I Get My Baby to Move?
While there isn’t a lot you can do to speed up the initial quickening of your pregnancy, once you start to feel the baby move more regularly there are things you can do to prod them to respond.
If you want to feel your baby move, here are some things you can try:
1. Relax in the Evening
Babies are most active in utero during the evening hours, so that’s the time you’re most likely to feel your little one move. During the day, the baby is usually rocked to sleep by the mother’s walking and movement, so they wake up at night when the mother rests and isn’t in constant motion.
2. Lie Down on Your Left Side
Blood flow increases to your baby when you lie on your left side, helping to stimulate their activity. Try to avoid lying flat on your back for prolonged periods later in your pregnancy as the heavier weight of the baby and uterus can compress some of the major vessels that provide blood to you and your baby.
3. Play Loud Music
Babies will respond to aural stimuli starting around 25 weeks (5). However, the uterus is a really noisy place between the whooshing of the amniotic fluid and the other muffled sounds of the outside world.
To stimulate the baby to move, play loud music and see if they respond. If that doesn’t work, speak to the baby. They will often respond to your voice.
4. Use a Flashlight
Babies can respond to visual stimuli by about week 16 and can see light through your belly if you place a flashlight on your skin. This is typically pretty effective at stimulating movement but should be used sparingly as there is disagreement within the medical community about whether it can cause discomfort to your baby.
5. Eat Stimulating Foods
Babies eat what you eat, so stimulant foods like caffeine and sugar can cause them to have a burst of energy just as they do to you. However, don’t overdo it on the caffeine — pregnant women should limit themselves to one cup of caffeinated coffee per day or less than 200 mg of caffeine per day (6).
When Should I Be Concerned?
There are so many things that can potentially complicate pregnancy, and the fact you can’t actually see your baby can cause anxiety about whether or not they are doing okay. Much like the mothers of pre-modern times, detectable fetal movements are one of the only day-to-day indicators we mothers have to assure us of our little one’s well-being.
So it makes sense if you’re not feeling your baby move as frequently as you’re accustomed to, you might worry they’re in distress.
However, it’s also possible you just haven’t noticed the movements because you’ve been busy or distracted with day-to-day activities.
Before you start to worry, make a conscious effort to monitor and count your fetal movements. Drink some juice or eat something sugar-laden to stimulate their body, lie down on your left side to maximize blood flow to the fetus, and count movements over the course of two hours.
Sometimes we give patients cold ice water in the office during none stress tests and that helps with movement as well.
Editor's Note:Dr. Njoud Jweihan, MD
Babies are asleep about 90 to 95 percent of the time while in utero, but only sleep about one hour at a time. So, over the course of two hours, you should definitely detect movement (7).
If you count fewer than ten movements, call your doctor to share your concerns and see if they believe further testing is warranted.
Why Should I Monitor Fetal Movement Regularly?
One of the best ways to ease your anxieties about the health of your baby and the frequency of their fetal movements is to monitor them regularly — not just when you’re concerned. Monitoring and tracking fetal movements daily can help you identify activity patterns, and also force you to take a purposeful, specific break to count movement.
Regularly monitoring movement will allow you to have concrete data to show to your doctor in the event of a concern. It may also help you detect a significant decrease in activity earlier than simply thinking, “Gosh, I don’t think I’ve felt the baby move in a couple of days…”, which could be both arbitrary and inaccurate.
How Can I Monitor Fetal Movement?
It’s generally recommended to start counting fetal movement daily around 28 weeks (8). If you have a high-risk pregnancy, your doctor may recommend starting 2 to 3 weeks earlier around week 26 along with other ways to keep track of your baby such as more frequent visits and ultrasounds. However, if you start too early it may be difficult to detect regular movement.
If you’re interested in tracking your fetal movements on a regular basis, here’s how to do it:
1. Decide How You Want to Record Your “Kick Counts.”
There are many ways to record the number of movements you feel, but it’s important to keep the information organized and in one place. Before you begin, choose the method you feel will work best for you.
Some options are:
- Logging it in a simple notebook.
- Writing it on your family calendar.
- Downloading and printing a chart designed for such use.
- Recording it on your smartphone’s calendar each day.
- Using an app.
2. Choose a Time of Day to Count Your Kicks.
When tracking fetal movements, it’s important to do so at the same time each day because your baby gets into a routine the same way you do. In order to accurately track movements — and recognize when there is a significant decrease in activity — choose a time you know you’ll be available to relax and track movement.
It’s also a good idea to choose a time when your baby is typically active, which for most babies is at night.
3. Lie Down on Your Left Side.
Resting on your left side increases blood flow to your baby, and reclining gives your baby more space to move as well as prevents them from being lulled to sleep by movement. When counting fetal movements, you want to create an environment where the baby is likely to move. Make sure to keep your legs elevated when you do this.
4. Don’t Stimulate the Baby.
There are certain things you can do to stimulate movement — or measures you might employ if you’re concerned you haven’t felt your baby move at all in quite some time.
But for your regular movement monitoring, don’t do anything special to evoke movement. You want to get a feel for their regular, unprompted movement.
5. Note the Time or Start a Stopwatch.
When you’re ready to start monitoring movement, note the time or start a stopwatch on your smartphone.
6. Count 10 Fetal Movements.
Begin counting fetal movements. Though they are often called “kick counts,” you’re tracking more than just kicks. Rolling, stretching, elbow jabs, they all count. Count until you detect 10 movements.
If you tend to lose count when there’s a long duration between movements, you may want to make tally marks on a piece of paper to help you keep an accurate count.
7. Note the Time or Stop the Stopwatch.
Once you’ve reached 10 distinct movements, note the time again or stop the stopwatch. This is the length of time it took you to detect 10 movements. Once you’ve noted 10 fetal movements, you do not need to continue counting.
8. Log the Time.
Log the length of time it took you to detect 10 fetal movements in your phone, app, chart, or notebook. This is the number you’ll be monitoring on a daily basis, and will help you get an idea of what is normal concerning your baby’s movements.
9. Contact Your Doctor If You Note a Significant Decrease in Movement.
If it takes noticeably longer than normal to reach 10 movements, or if you don’t detect 10 movements within a two-hour period, drink some juice or see if you can stimulate your baby in some other way. Try the fetal movement count again and if your count is still low, contact your doctor.
The Bottom Line
Quickening in pregnancy is not only exciting when it first happens, but fetal movement can also be used later in pregnancy to help monitor the health and vitality of your baby and help develop the bond between you and your baby.
Activity level varies depending on the baby, mother, and the time of day, but 10 movements in two hours is considered the standard for a healthy baby. Anything less than that is considered concerning.
Have you monitored fetal movement? What things did you discover stimulated your little one?