In a nutshell: The prevalence of ‘phantom kicks’ after the end of pregnancy has implications for fetal health monitoring and women’s mental health.

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Many women feel fetal kick sensations – so-called ‘phantom kicks’ – after pregnancy has ended. These sensations are widely discussed by women – such as in online forums – but they have not been studied or reported in the scientific literature. As a result, little is known about their prevalence, frequency, causes or consequences.

To report on this phenomenon for the first time, Brain Function CoE investigator Sharna Jamadarand colleagues surveyed almost 200 women in Australia. They asked the women if they had experienced any sensations of movement after their pregnancy. They also asked how long after pregnancy the phantom kicks occurred, and how they made the women feel.

Almost 40% of the women reported experiencing phantom kicks after the birth of their first child. Of the women who had given birth a year or more earlier, 39% reported still experiencing these sensations. This makes it unlikely that phantom kicks are related to the normal resettling of abdominal organs after pregnancy, which is usually complete within 6 months of giving birth.

Around 27% of the women described the sensations as a positive experience that made them feel happy or nostalgic. But 26% reported that they felt confused, anxious or upset. Women whose babies had died before birth – through miscarriage or stillbirth – were more likely to describe the emotional experience of phantom kicks negatively.

Many women reported that their healthcare providers did not know about post-partum phantom kick sensations. They felt unsupported when they asked questions about their experiences.

These results have implications for how fetal health is monitored. During late pregnancy, mothers are often told to pay attention to fetal movement – a sudden decrease can signal that something is wrong. The prevalence of phantom kicks raises the possibility that not all sensations attributed to fetal movement during pregnancy are caused by the fetus.

Next steps:
The researchers are interested in exploring the neural basis for these sensations.

Sasan, D., Ward, P.G.D., Nash, M., Orchard, E.R., Farrell, M.J., Hohwy, J., Jamadar, S.D. (2020). “Phantom Kicks”: Women’s subjective experience of fetal kicks after the postpartum period. Journal of Women’s Health, doi: 10.1089/jwh.2019.8191

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