Sometimes, usually early in your second trimester, you feel your baby move. It’s thrilling! It feels like a butterfly opening its wings at first. Later, you get genuine kicks and jabs, as if there is a karate master in there. (Counting those kicks for a time each day gets important in your third trimester.) Experiencing it is all so magical. So imagine my surprise, long after I gave birth to my two children, when I would have a quiet moment alone and feel what I could swear was a baby kick. After some panic-Googling, I learned these feelings are known as phantom kicks.
What is a phantom kick, exactly? This phenomenon is pretty much exactly like it sounds — “kicks” felt after birth or pregnancy loss that aren’t actual kicks. They’re the perception of fetal movement through flutters that mimic a baby’s kick.
Following the loss of her son Jack, Chrissy Teigen shared a heartrending video showing just how convincing phantom kicks can be.
What are these mind games?
Any quick search will show you that phantom kicks are super normal. In one study at Monash University, 40 percent of women reported feeling what they could interpret as fetal kicks, even decades after giving birth.
“If I had never had a baby, I would have looked at a patient twice if they said they still feel a baby kicking years later after giving birth,” says Betsy Greenleaf, DO, FACOG, mother of two and host of the Some of Your Parts podcast. “However, I’ve been there and know this is real.”
Does this mean sometimes a kick was not a kick?
Who knows if, back when you were pregnant, you sometimes flipped out over your lunch moving through your system, thinking it was your baby? It’s possible, especially if you “felt something” earlier than 20 weeks.
“The brain can’t recognize what it hasn’t experienced before, but once we become pregnant, the brain develops a memory of pregnancy sensations,” Dr. Greenleaf says. “After pregnancy, we’re more in tune with our abdomen or abdominal wall and notice the movement of our inner organs, such as the intestinal movement of peristalsis for digestion, the movement of gas through the bowels, or abdominal wall muscles twitches. The brain connects these sensations with those felt during pregnancy, and they will register in the brain as ‘phantom kicks.'”
Some kicks really were kicks. Some movements were probably gas. No one can say for sure, so you can believe whatever you want!
Are there any other pregnancy-related phantom feelings?
When I was pregnant with my first, a hippie friend who was legit grandma-age said casually, “When I hear a baby cry, my milk still lets down.” I knew that was bananas. While our breasts might produce a little bit of milk years after nursing, it is not happening 20 years after nursing — and not after menopause.
But what is real is phantom letdown. I know because, after nursing my two kids for a collective four years of my life, my brain can still vividly imagine that exact feeling, even if letdown is not actually happening.
On the flip side, I can’t recall the exact feeling of giving birth — I think my birth amnesia is the reason I was able to have my second at all. I do remember the thrilling feeling of seeing each little newborn face for the first time, though.
So, when all is said and done, I guess the brain holds on to what it wants and tosses out what it doesn’t.