Quickening and fetal movement: First baby kicks explained

    Published 08 March 2023
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    Medically reviewed by Dr. Angela Jones, Obstetrician and gynecologist, attending physician, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, New Jersey, US
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    What is quickening in pregnancy, and when can you expect those first flutters of movement to occur? A doctor explains everything you need to know about this special moment.

    When your body is home to a growing human, there’s nothing quite as special as the times you get to experience your baby’s existence more profoundly. Throughout your pregnancy journey, you’ll experience quite a few of these. First, you’ll get to see the ultrasound pictures, and then, you’ll get to hear the sound of your baby’s heartbeat. Then there’s the very first flutter of movement from your baby in your belly. 

    It’s momentous and reassuring, and it also has a name: quickening. But what does this feel like, and when can you expect to feel it? We spoke to Dr. Charlsie Celestine, obstetrician and gynecologist, New Jersey, US, to find out everything you need to know about baby quickening. 

    What is quickening in pregnancy?

    “Quickening in pregnancy simply means that very first time you feel movement from your baby,”  says Dr. Celestine.

    Wondering where the term “quickening” comes from? Well, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with coming up with it. According to him, quickening is the point at which life growing in the uterus becomes human. Thinking has moved on a bit since then, but quickening can still be an incredibly exciting moment in your pregnancy journey. 

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    When does quickening start?

    So when is quickening first felt? Your baby will start moving around 12 weeks of pregnancy, but you’re unlikely to feel anything that early. Instead, you can expect the action to start “anywhere from 16 to 24 weeks in your pregnancy,” says Dr. Celestine. In other words, it’s likely to begin around halfway through your pregnancy in your second trimester — but remember that everyone is different, so try not to compare yourself to others.

    And on that note, did you know that the timing of when you feel those first movements can depend on a number of different factors? These include the following:

    • Previous pregnancies — Do you already have children? It’s possible that you’ll notice quickening as early as 16 weeks. If this is your first time, you might have to wait until you’re around 20 to 22 weeks pregnant. Why the difference? “If you’ve had a baby before, you [often] know what you’re looking for this time around; you’re able to pick up on [quickening] sooner. It’s not a completely new sensation,” explains Dr. Celestine. Remember that your baby’s first movements are very soft and subtle, so it can be tricky to know exactly when you’re feeling quickening. But rest assured that as your pregnancy progresses, you’ll become much more familiar with your baby’s actions.
    • Your placenta’s position — You may know from your pregnancy ultrasound pictures where your placenta is located in your uterus. If you have an anterior placenta, this means that it’s attached to the front wall of your uterus (which, by the way, is totally normal and healthy and happens in around half of all pregnancies). If that’s the case, you may not feel quickening until after 20 weeks. That doesn’t mean your baby isn’t moving; it simply means it’s harder for you to feel those subtle flutters through the placenta, so try not to worry too much if you don’t feel anything until then. Having an anterior placenta can also reduce how much you feel your baby’s movement throughout the rest of your pregnancy. That’s because an anterior placenta acts like a cushion between your belly and your baby. If you don’t have an anterior placenta, it could be positioned at the back, top, or side of your uterus instead. These positions won’t affect how you feel your baby’s movements. 

    You might also be wondering where in your belly you’ll feel quickening occur. Generally, you’ll feel those first little movements down low in your belly. “At that time, your uterus is usually below your belly button, so it’s going to be in that area,” explains Dr. Celestine. But by week 36 in your third trimester, the top of your uterus will be under your rib cage — yes, really!

    How long does quickening last?

    For such a momentous moment, you’d hope it might last long enough for you to fully appreciate what’s going on. So how long can you expect to feel those first movements from your baby? “The first time you feel it, it’s just a moment. It’s so subtle,” says Dr. Celestine. 

    “Then, as your baby grows, those movements become stronger and longer. You’re more likely to be relaxing when you experience quickening, so not when you’re busy with work or socializing.” That sounds like a great reason to get cozy on the couch with a good book!

    What does quickening feel like?

    “Everybody feels it a little bit differently,” explains Dr. Celestine. “Most people say it feels like fluttering butterfly wings inside your abdomen.” That sounds rather nice, doesn’t it?

    You might also have heard that quickening can feel like gas. So, can it? You bet, says Dr. Celestine. “It can feel like gas bubbles, like flatulence,” she adds. That explains why it can be tricky for first-time parents to recognize quickening when it occurs; those subtle movements are easily confused for other things.

    What other people say

    Wondering what other people’s experiences of quickening are? Here’s how Flo users have described fetal quickening in Secret Chats: 

    “Pretty sure I felt [the] baby move today, quickening I think it’s called. I felt little bubbles or almost like a muscle spasm in my right tummy just above [the] belly button area …”

    “It felt like a wave/flutter in my lower belly! Not at all the sensation I get when gassy or hungry.”

    “I swear I’m feeling some quickening. I suppose it could just be gas, but it’s unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s like little tingles.”

    Remember, quickening will feel different for everyone, and you’ll eventually learn what your baby’s movements feel like.

    Is it painful?

    If you’ve never experienced it before, you might be wondering if you can expect to feel any pain alongside quickening. Dr. Celestine explains that, no, quickening shouldn’t hurt in any way. 

    “At the time of that first movement, your baby is really small, and their movements won’t feel that strong. Movement later on in your pregnancy can feel painful as your baby grows bigger,” she explains, adding: “If you have any pain during the beginning of pregnancy, especially if you have bleeding too, you need to contact your doctor.” 

    While noticing any bleeding during your pregnancy can be understandably alarming, it might be reassuring to know that this is actually pretty common. In fact, it happens in up to 25 in 100 pregnancies in the first trimester — but it’s always best to get checked out by your doctor, who can hopefully reassure you that everything is OK.

    Having said that, rest assured that aches and pains are totally normal in pregnancy. After all, your body is growing a whole new person from scratch, so it’s going through a lot of changes! 

    How frequent are your baby’s movements?

    Feeling your baby move around inside your belly is usually an exciting moment for most expectant parents. So how often can you expect to feel those movements? “In the beginning, there’s no pattern to your baby’s movements. We really only talk about tracking fetal movements once you’re beyond 28 weeks pregnant,” explains Dr. Celestine. Experts advise that you should ideally feel around 10 movements from your baby within a two-hour time span. “But before 28 weeks, there’s no consistent pattern,” adds Dr. Celestine. 

    Of course, it’s important to note that every pregnancy is different, so try not to worry if your baby is moving less than this. It may be due to the fact that your baby’s movements just aren’t strong enough to feel yet rather than a sign that anything’s wrong. But remember that you can always reach out to your doctor if you have any concerns, and they can run some additional tests if needed.

    Will my partner be able to feel it?

    It’s a shame, but your partner probably won’t be able to feel quickening in the same way that you can. That’s due to the fact that the first movement is so gentle because your baby isn’t very big at that stage. At 16 weeks, your baby is around 7.3 inches/18.6 cm long from head to toe and weighs around 5.2 ounces/146 grams, which is roughly the size of an avocado. So your partner will have to hold out until a bit later before they can feel your baby’s moving and grooving — there’s no set date for when this can happen, as everyone is different. However, a trained health care professional can feel the movements at around 20 weeks of pregnancy, so it could be as early as then. It’ll be worth the wait — we promise!

    What if you don’t feel quickening?

    It’s natural to worry if you don’t feel any movement from your baby as your pregnancy progresses, so let’s look at what you should do in this case. If you have any concerns about your baby’s movements or lack of movements, then always reach out to your doctor. They will check your baby’s heartbeat and movement and will hopefully reassure you that everything is OK.

    It’s likely that you will have seen a health care provider after 24 weeks of pregnancy. If you don’t feel any movement for longer periods of time after 24 weeks or you still haven’t felt your baby move at all by this time, then be sure to contact your health care provider. If this happens to you, try not to panic. Your baby may be absolutely fine, but the movements just may not be strong enough for you to feel them yet. It can be really reassuring to watch your baby move on an ultrasound or hear their heartbeat, so make sure you get checked out for peace of mind.

    Should your lifestyle change due to quickening?

    You don’t need to change anything due to quickening — you can keep on going with your healthy pregnancy lifestyle as normal. This involves eating a balanced diet, staying active, and taking prenatal vitamins. Phew. 

    Quickening, cramps, and kicking: What are the differences? 

    OK, so we know that quickening is that initial flutter from your baby. Any movements you feel from then on are known as baby kicks, baby movements, or fetal movements. Cramps are different — in pregnancy, they can be caused by a number of things, such as your uterus moving around, not your baby. “You might get cramps from your uterus stretching and growing throughout your pregnancy,” explains Dr. Celestine. These feel “just like period cramps,” she adds. 

    What should you do if your baby moves less?

    “If you feel that you’re having decreased fetal movements, you should contact your doctor immediately. It’s something that should always be evaluated,” advises Dr. Celestine. But again, try not to panic — feeling less movement from your baby isn’t always a sign of something serious. 

    “It might be as simple as still [being] early on in pregnancy when you’re not going to feel movement every day, all the time,” Dr. Celestine adds. Your doctor will be able to check you over and run any tests and hopefully give you lots of reassurance that your baby is perfectly healthy and doing OK. 

    Quickening: The takeaway

    So, what have we learned about quickening? Essentially, quickening in pregnancy is the first time that you feel your baby move. It will still be the early days when you feel it, so the movement will feel less like a strong kick and more like a gentle flutter in your belly. It’s a major milestone in pregnancy, and for many people, it makes the pregnancy and the existence of their tiny baby feel all the more real.    

    Just remember that every pregnancy is different, so while some people will feel quickening as early as 16 weeks, others might have to wait until around the 22-week mark before they feel those initial movements. If you haven’t felt any movements from your baby by 24 weeks, then be sure to reach out to your doctor for reassurance. As we’ve seen, the movements can be easily confused with the feelings associated with gas and cramping, so in all likelihood, there’s nothing to worry about.

    References

    “16 Weeks Pregnant? Read This NHS Approved Guide to Your Pregnancy.” NHS, www.nhs.uk/start4life/pregnancy/week-by-week/2nd-trimester/week-16/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

    “Anterior Placenta.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23306-anterior-placenta. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

    “Bleeding during Pregnancy.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/bleeding-during-pregnancy. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

    Bryant, Joy, et al. “Fetal Movement.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 2022.

    “Changes during Pregnancy.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, www.acog.org/womens-health/infographics/changes-during-pregnancy. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

    “Quickening.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, www.acog.org/womens-health/dictionary. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

    “Everything You Need to Know about Your Placenta.” Mayo Clinic, 3 Dec. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/placenta/art-20044425.

    Curran, Mark A. “Fetal Development.” Perinatology.com, www.perinatology.com/Reference/Fetal%20development.htm. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.

    “Fetal Development: What Happens during the 2nd Trimester?” Mayo Clinic, 3 June 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/fetal-development/art-20046151.

    “Kick Counts.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23497-kick-counts. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.

    “Nutrition during Pregnancy.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/nutrition-during-pregnancy. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.

    “Vitamins, Supplements and Nutrition in Pregnancy.” NHS, www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/vitamins-supplements-and-nutrition/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

    Brind’Amour, Katherine. “Quickening.” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, embryo.asu.edu/pages/quickening. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023. 

    “Quickening in Pregnancy: First Movements & What To Expect.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/22829-quickening-in-pregnancy. Accessed 17 Feb. 2023.

    “Your Baby’s Movements.” NHS, www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/your-babys-movements/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2023.

    History of updates

    Current version (08 March 2023)

    Medically reviewed by Dr. Angela Jones, Obstetrician and gynecologist, attending physician, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, New Jersey, US

    Published (08 March 2023)

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