One of the most exciting physical sensations during pregnancy is feeling those first flutters and kicks. But what happens if you feel those symptoms months or even years after you’ve given birth?
If you’ve ever experienced this, you probably got very confused, maybe even a little unnerved. But what you were feeling is a very real phenomenon called phantom kicks, and it’s nothing to be worried about.
While little research has been done around the appearance of phantom kicks postpartum, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that has helped doctors understand what is going on and what you can do if it happens to you.
What Are Phantom Kicks?
Most pregnant people anxiously await the moment when they begin to feel their growing baby fluttering around inside (usually between weeks 16 and 251 ). The first time you may wonder if what you’re feeling is a foot or just gas. Then, you look forward to each new twitch until your baby is showing off their strength, sometimes with forceful, stomach-moving kicks. It’s an exciting feeling, but not one you expect to have after your baby is out and bouncing around in the world.
Yet, a few months after giving birth, you may be snuggling with your baby, driving in the car, or cooking dinner when out of the blue you feel what you can swear is a baby kicking inside you.
This is an experience known as phantom kicks, or the perception of fetal movement felt by women after they are pregnant. In one study of 197 women, 40% experienced2 these sensations. While nearly 27% said the phenomenon felt nostalgic, even comforting, and reminded them of pregnancy, an almost equal number, 25.7%, were left feeling confused or upset.
The biggest thing to remember if this happens to you is that this sensation is normal and whatever emotions it brings up for you are valid.
How Does It Differ From Phantom Pregnancy?
Because of the name, it’s easy to get phantom kicks confused with phantom pregnancies. While phantom kicks are only the feeling of flutters in the belly, phantom pregnancies—or pseudocyesis3 —present with more signs and symptoms of pregnancy. People experiencing this condition may have morning sickness, a growing belly, enlarged breasts, missed periods, increased appetite, and weight gain. What they experience are the real, physical symptoms of being pregnant.
Phantom pregnancy is a fairly rare condition. While it’s not usually related to pregnancy loss, it can occur after extreme emotional stress. The manifestation of phantom kicks, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily coincide with stress.
Why Do Phantom Kicks Happen?
Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus on what causes phantom kicks. There are a few different ideas, but this condition has been under-researched, like many female-specific issues. Sadly, gender bias4 in research is still a common issue that needs to be fixed.
While no one has an exact answer on what is causing those phantom kicks, there is anecdotal evidence that has led medical professionals to some hypotheses. If you experience this condition, it may be caused by one of these or a combination of these factors:
When you are pregnant, your organs move around5 to make room for your growing baby. Your bladder is pressed down. Your stomach moves up and rotates. Your intestines are being compressed by your uterus as early as nine weeks. By the end of 40 weeks, your stomach and intestines are pushing on your liver and lungs. All this movement is completely natural and very necessary to grow a baby inside of you.
After birth, your body slowly starts the process of returning your organs to their rightful place—or at least close to it. While your organs are on the move after birth, you may feel certain sensations. These changes didn’t happen overnight to begin with, and it takes your body a little bit of time to get back to its new normal. This organ migration may be one cause of kick-like sensations during your first year postpartum.
Heightened awareness of feelings in your body
During pregnancy, you become very tuned into your body. You are probably noticing every little movement, usually waiting for that first kick or hiccup. As pregnancy progresses, you are also on high alert to notice any signs of labor. It’s hard to turn off this heightened awareness right after you give birth, and the lingering awareness may be the cause of phantom kicks.
After pregnancy, your body shifts and moves around. Gastrointestinal movement is the sensation you will feel the most. While before pregnancy you probably didn’t notice what was happening in your abdomen very often, you may be tuned in to every little gurgle postpartum. A simple bout of gas or the regular contractions your intestines experience to help move food through your system can make your brain trigger the memory of a kick. It doesn’t help that gas and bloating are very common after pregnancy and can be the cause of early phantom kicks.
Some women are even conscious of movement or popping feelings when they ovulate or during their period, something they may have not noticed before being pregnant. All of these movements can mimic the feeling of phantom kicks.
Nerve and muscle memory
Another theory is that phantom kicks may be a similar sensation to that felt by someone who has nerve and muscle memory after losing a limb. If someone loses an arm, for instance, they may feel different sensations where that arm once was even though it’s no longer there.
When you experience new sensations like a baby kicking in your belly, it’s such a specific feeling, unlike anything you have ever felt before. While pregnant, you are intensely attuned to all of your baby’s movements and kicks. This may create muscle and nerve memory, which results in phantom kicks long after your baby has vacated the premises.
Endometriosis6 is a condition that causes the tissue that normally lines the uterus to grow on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or intestines. This condition can cause extremely uncomfortable and irregular periods. Research shows it affects anywhere from 10-15% of reproductive-aged females.
While endometriosis is not a proven cause of phantom kicks, many women who suffer from endometriosis report a feeling of movement in the abdomen, much like fetal kicks. If you suspect endometriosis may be the cause of your phantom kicks, schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can do certain tests to evaluate your situation, including a pelvic exam, ultrasound, MRI, or laparoscopy.
Phantom kicks can also be experienced after miscarriage or pregnancy loss. While the loss may not be a direct cause of this phenomenon, it is good to know that what you are feeling is normal.
While there is nothing to worry about physically when experiencing phantom kicks, if it is affecting your mental health and your grieving process, talk to your doctor about things you can do. They may recommend going to therapy to help you through your experience and lessen the emotional toll of phantom kicks.
How Often Can You Feel Phantom Kicks?
With the lack of research surrounding this subject, there is also a lack of understanding about what is a normal amount of phantom kicks to feel. What we do have is anecdotal evidence.
Some women report feeling phantom kicks every once in a while. Some feel them more regularly—like once a week—while others feel them multiple times a day.
While phantom kicks are not harmful, if they’re bothering you or keeping you from your normal life, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor, especially if your mental health is being negatively affected.
What You Can Do About Phantom Kicks?
For some, phantom kicks can be a cause of frustration since they are unpredictable in both when they appear and how long they last. For others, they can be a comforting feeling, bringing up good memories of pregnancy.
Depending on how you feel, you may wish to get rid of phantom kicks as soon as possible. The first step to treating them is to figure out which of the possible causes may be at the root of your case. Once you’ve narrowed it down, reach out to a specialist who can help with your particular triggers.
Can Meditation Help?
While there is no research that directly links meditation to phantom kicks, there is research showing meditation relaxes the muscles throughout the body. If the feeling of kicking is caused by muscle and nerve memory or even a heightened awareness of the body, meditation may help relax your abdominal muscles, reducing the feelings altogether.
Regardless of why the phantom kicks have appeared, the most important thing to remember is that the sensation is incredibly normal, that your feelings about them are valid, and that it is easy to treat this phenomenon as soon as you get to the root of the issue.