Baby Care

What are phantom kicks? Are they normal when you’re no longer pregnant?

Is it in your head or are you actually feeling baby kicks after you’re no longer pregnant? Known as phantom kicks, these fluttering sensations in the belly can happen after giving birth or experiencing pregnancy loss.

Here, we examine what phantom pregnancy kicks are, what causes them and what to do if you’re feeling kicks but not pregnant. 

What are phantom kicks?

Phantom kicks are the perceived feeling of a baby’s movement, or a baby’s kicks, in your belly when you’re no longer pregnant. They may be felt days, weeks or months after pregnancy.

Little is known about phantom kicks, as research into the phenomenon is limited. However, it’s believed to involve certain nerve receptors and their “memory”, akin to the sensation of phantom limbs.

Studies have found that between 80% and 100% of amputees have experienced phantom limb syndrome, a condition in which people experience sensations in a limb that no longer exists.  

What causes phantom kicks?

There are several theories as to what causes phantom kicks postpartum, though none are conclusive. Some experts believe the phenomenon is linked to the body’s process of postpartum recovery, as muscles and connective tissue begin remodelling themselves once the baby has been born. Others think that the growth of the uterus during pregnancy leads to growth in nerve receptors, resulting in the feeling. There is also the possibility that phantom kicks are the body’s misinterpretation of other bodily functions, such as digestion and gas.

How long do phantom kicks last?

Anyone can experience phantom kicks after pregnancy, but the phenomenon is most common soon after giving birth. While some people feel phantom kicks for years after their baby is born, most people stop experiencing them after a few months.

One 2019 study found that, out of 197 women surveyed, 40% said they felt phantom kicks after giving birth the first time and, on average, for up to 6.8 years postpartum. One woman in the study reported feeling phantom kicks up to 28 years after giving birth. 

When should you worry about phantom kicks?

Phantom kicks generally aren’t anything to be concerned about, physically speaking. But if they’re happening more and more often, it might be worth speaking to a healthcare professional.

Concerns about phantom kicks tend to surround mental rather than physical health — particularly for people who have experienced pregnancy loss or child loss. The sensation of movement may complicate the grieving process for people who have felt a baby move before suffering a loss. It is not uncommon for trauma to prompt false pregnancy symptoms such as phantom kicks.

Discussing these symptoms and any difficult feelings surrounding them with a healthcare professional or your wider support network can be an important way of processing your emotions after pregnancy loss.

The bottom line

Experiencing fluttery sensations known as phantom kicks after pregnancy is not uncommon and typically not a cause for concern. However, if you have experienced a loss, it’s important to talk it through because the phantom kicks could be linked to trauma and unprocessed emotions. It’s a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional, who may be able to offer or recommend support.

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