'Phantom Kicks' Are Eerie But Common For Years After Pregnancy

Why It Can Feel Like You’re Pregnant For Years After You’ve Had A Baby

phantom-kicks-1
Kanchana Chitkhamma/EyeEm/Getty

The other day I was lying in bed, cuddling with my son as he was falling asleep. All of a sudden, I felt a familiar flutter in my abdomen, a sensation I associate strongly with baby kicks during pregnancy.

These were not the kind you feel in late pregnancy, when you can clearly tell that a baby foot is kicking you squarely in the belly button. No, these felt like the quickening movements I experienced with each of my pregnancies, at about 18 weeks or so – a flurried tapping, a strange bubbly sensation.

My first thought was, “Oh, it’s probably just gas.” Except, well, there wasn’t any “release” associated with the supposed gas, and I can usually tell when something digestive is happening with me.

Nope, it felt so specific, so familiar, so singularly associated with my babies’ early kicking that I started to freak out a little.

“Could it be?” I thought, going through things like when my last period was, when the last time was that my husband and I did the deed. But I had just finished my period four days prior, which meant there was no way I had ovulated, conceived, and was well enough into a pregnancy to start to feel a baby kicking.

Soon enough, I came to my senses and realized what the heck was going on…I was experiencing phantom kicks, of course!

Charday Penn/Getty

If you haven’t heard of them, phantom kicks are basically imitation baby kicks that women who’ve been pregnant sometimes experience. It’s been seven years since I’ve been pregnant, and while I don’t experience them that often, about once or twice a year, I definitely do.

Phantom kicks always stop me in my tracks. They feel so real, and I pretty much always start to believe I’m somehow pregnant when I’m clearly not. It’s totally bonkers.

Apparently, I’m not alone. I recently came across a really interesting survey about phantom kicks put out by the folks at Monash University in Australia. Researchers there surveyed 197 women who had previously been pregnant about their experience with phantom kicks.

Nearly 40% of the women surveyed had experienced phantom kicks at one time or another. These women described the phantom kicks as “real kicks,” or “flutters,” and 50% of moms described the kicks as “very convincing.” On average, women who experienced these sensations say they continued about 6.8 years after giving birth. So it’s not just new moms who experience this.

And get this: one mom they surveyed still experienced phantom kicks 28 years after giving birth. Incredible.

Probably the most important takeaways of the survey was how the women felt about these sensations. Now, for me, I am usually just confused and a little anxious when I experience them, because my reproductive factory is closed for business as far as I’m concerned and the idea of having another baby right now is, ummm, not welcome.

Phantom kicks always stop me in my tracks. They feel so real, and I pretty much always start to believe I’m somehow pregnant when I’m clearly not.

However, I mostly feel positive about the experience, a bit of that nostalgic, “oh I remember those magical moments of pregnancy” thing.

According to this survey, 25% of women describe the sensations as positive. 27% reported feelings of confusion and even feeling a bit upset by the sensations. However, 16% described the feelings as negative, and this was particularly true among mothers who had experienced pregnancy loss, including stillbirth.

The researchers were struck by the intense emotions these mothers shared with them, and believe further research should be carried out about the mental health effects of phantom kicks among mothers who had experienced pregnancy loss.

“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 wrote. “Content analysis of  women’s  responses to phantom kicks suggested that the  experience could exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, particularly in the case of stillbirth.”

Yes, it seems vital to me that the connection between phantom kicks and postpartum mood disorders be researched more fully. I can only imagine how triggering an out-of-nowhere baby kick would be to a mother who lost a child.

In general, the researchers point out that phantom kicks are a subject that has been woefully under-researched—as is the case with so many aspects of women’s health. In fact, they point out, there is no clear consensus on what even causes phantom kicks. At the time, they explain, the mechanism that causes these sensations in women is unknown, though they assure that the sensations have nothing to do with delusions or hallucinations (whew!).

So what might be causing us to be experiencing phantom kicks, even years after giving birth?

The researchers have a couple of theories, including “misattribution of normal bodily sensations”—which basically means confusing the sensations of digestion or other bodily processes with baby kicks. Yep, been there, done that.

But then there is also the “proprioception” theory, where phantom kicks are thought to be similar to phantom limbs, where you still experience the sensations of a missing or amputated body part even after it is gone.

Ready to have your mind blown? Check out how the researchers describe it.

“During pregnancy, the innervation of the abdominal region by ongoing foetal movement increases over the ~40 week gestation, and rapidly ceases at childbirth,” they write. “The rapid reduction of abdominal somatosensation at childbirth has some similarities to the rapid cessation of innervation following limb amputation. It is possible that phantom kicks may be phenomenologically like the phantom limb phenomenon.”

Women who experienced these sensations say they continued about 6.8 years after giving birth. So it’s not just new moms who experience this.

Wow, women’s bodies are amazing and fascinating. It seems to me that there is still a lot to learn about phantom kicks, and certainly any relationship between them and postpartum mental health should be researched ASAP.

For me, this bit of research validates the fact that yes, it’s normal to experience phantom kicks even years after you’ve given birth, and it’s also normal to experience a myriad of different emotions along with them. And while it might be “just gas” in some cases, it’s not all “in your head” either.

My hope is that the next time I experience a phantom kick, I will simply be able to enjoy the phenomenon as a cool thing that women’s bodies sometimes do…without rushing out to buy a pregnancy test and demanding my husband get an immediate vasectomy.