Fetal Movement

Vilma Ruddock
Fetal Movement

One of the best moments in your pregnancy will likely be the first time you feel your baby move inside you halfway into your second trimester. From this exciting time around 16-20 weeks, you will increasingly be aware of your baby's movements as she/he develops and his systems mature. Feeling your baby move can reassure you that he is doing well.

What Mothers Feel

Mothers use a variety of terms to describe the different types of fetal movements they experience:

  • In the beginning, movements might feel like faint flutters, bubbles, waves, butterflies, or a roller coaster motion.
  • Later, those fleeting flutters will become full-on kicks, rolls, pokes, and jabs that may sometimes be uncomfortable.

You will probably notice the faint fetal movements more easily when you are at rest or after eating. Most of your baby's early movements might be more jerky than smooth. By 28 weeks through the third trimester, the smoother, coordinated movements become more common as the nervous system and muscles develop.

Your Baby Develops Movement From the First Trimester

Your baby starts to move in the first trimester by the seventh to eighth week of pregnancy. Although you can't feel the movements that early, your doctor might see them on ultrasound.

It is interesting to imagine your baby's journey through his development of movement. From a review by the Handbook of Brain and Behavior in Human Development (pages 416 to 418):

  • It starts with your embryo being able to bend his head sideways at 7 to 8 weeks.
  • Generalized whole body movements, including back arches and startles, follow at 9 to 10 weeks.
  • Hiccups, which can move the whole fetus, also occur at about 9 to 10 weeks.
  • Isolated arm and leg motions emerge at around 10 to 11 weeks.
  • Other types of head movements, hand-to-face motions, breathing, stretches, and yawns come at 10 to 11 weeks.
  • Next, swallowing, mouth movements, and sucking appear around 12 weeks.

As your baby's brain, nervous system, muscles, and connections mature, his movements become more defined and stronger until you start to notice them for the first time.

Movement in the Second Trimester

In the second trimester, your baby refines his movements and continues to add others to his repertoire, including:

  • The ability to change position in the uterus around 13 weeks; this involve rolls, somersaults, and alternating, stepping-like leg movements
  • Eye movements and smiling, starting about 20 weeks

By the 20th week, all types of movements are developed, and your baby's activities grow stronger.

Quickening

Quickening describes the first moment you become aware of your baby's movement in the second trimester. This usually occurs around 16 to 20 weeks of pregnancy. If there is any discrepancy or concern about the timing of your quickening, your doctor will order an ultrasound to check on your baby.

A few factors influence how soon you first become aware of your baby's movements:

  • Mothers who have been pregnant before tend to perceive quickening earlier than first-time mothers (as early as 13 to 14 weeks).
  • If you are pregnant with twins or other multiples, you might feel the first flutters earlier than if you have a singleton baby.
  • If you are overweight, you might not experience quickening until after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • The date you gave your doctor of your last period might not be accurate; you might not be too early in your pregnancy to feel movement.

At first, you might be unsure you are actually feeling your baby move. Stay tuned in and before long, you will realize those first little flutters and butterflies are actually fetal movements. This is usually a huge bonding moment for mothers and their babies. Soon your partner and family will also be able to feel and see your baby move.

Mid to Late Second Trimester

By 24 weeks, your baby is moving around a lot. He might move his legs and change his position more often. As his movements get stronger, you might start to feel them with more certainty and more often, and may or you may begin to notice a pattern.

At 28 weeks, you will be even more aware of your baby's strong turns, kicks, pokes, and jabs by his feet, and the hiccups that can move his entire body. His smiles, grimaces, feet, and hands-to-face movements are also more defined.

Movement in the Third Trimester

Beyond 28 weeks, now in your third trimester, as your baby gets bigger you will probably try to guess which parts are moving against your belly as he stretches, arches, swims, and change position. Your partner and other people will now be better able to feel and see your baby move.

Each baby and each pregnancy is different, so don't worry if your friend's baby is moving more or less than yours. As long as there is no significant decrease or other changes in movements, your baby is likely to be fine.

Late Third Trimester

At 36 weeks and beyond, your baby starts to run out of room. He can't perform the frequent gymnastics he used to, but you will still feel his stretches and arches, as well as pokes from his elbows, hands, knees, and feet. You can also see these moving parts pushing at your belly.

If he seems to be moving around less, this is usually nothing to be worried about. However, your baby should still be averaging about 10 kicks per hour. If you are concerned, you should contact your OB provider.

Movement Before Labor

Around 35 to 38 weeks as you get closer to your due date, your baby might be turning to position himself, usually head first, towards your cervix for labor and delivery.

Though he has less room, he is still active, and you should be feeling his movements. According to a 2016 BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth article, movements will remain strong and forceful. Keep aware for any noticeable decrease in activity.

Movement During Labor

During labor, your baby will still be moving although with different types of movement. The force of contractions move him against your cervix, which effaces and dilates. He might become quiet during your contractions. As he moves down the birth canal (vagina), he will rotate to align put himself in the best position for delivery.

Interpreting Your Baby's Movements

Regular fetal movement is a reflection of your baby's well-being. A sudden and dramatic change in your baby's movements could be a sign he is in distress or at risk for death before or at birth. You should contact your OB specialist or go to the hospital immediately.

Jerky Movements

A noticeable increase in jerky movements over his baseline in the late second or during the third trimester could also signal a baby in difficulty. There are a few reports that repetitive, jerky movements could be caused by seizures or other brain abnormalities.

Periods of Rest

Note that your baby has cycles of rest so decreased movement could just mean he is sleeping. Periods of sleep last from 20 to 90 minutes, and he will be more quiet during the day and active at night starting around 9:00 pm.

If you think he is too quiet, eat a snack or walk around to try to make him move. A source of noise applied to your belly might also wake him. If you are still worried that he is moving less than usual, contact your OB doctor or midwife for advice.

Monitoring Your Baby's Movement

Depending on your description of changes in your baby's movement, your OB specialist might do an ultrasound to check on his movements and well-being. In the third trimester he might order electronic fetal surveillance testing or ask you to do more frequent kick counts.

Kick Counts

OB doctors consider counting your baby's kicks a standard test to make sure he is moving enough. You should do them about two times a day during your third trimester or anytime you think your baby is not as active as normal.

Kick Count Log

To count your baby's kicks:

  1. Drink a glass of water.
  2. Sit in a comfortable chair or relax in bed on your left side.
  3. Concentrate on your baby's movements.
  4. Note and record any kind of movement your baby makes in the space of an hour.
  5. If you get less than 10 kicks or other movements in an hour, eat a snack or drink a glass of juice and count again.
  6. Record your observations on a log.

If in two hours of counting, your baby moves less than 10 times, contact your OB provider. Remember that substances, such as medicines, alcohol, and recreational drugs, can also slow your baby's activities.

Tips to Get Your Baby to Move

Babies in the uterus respond to sound, touch, light, and your activities. In addition to a snack or a sugared drink, other tips to get your baby to respond and move include:

  • Walk or do a light jog in place.
  • Put your feet up or lie down and take a rest.
  • Gently poke your belly.
  • Shine a flashlight on your belly.
  • Talk or sing to your baby, or ring a small bell; after around 24 weeks, his hearing is developed enough and he will move in response to sound.

Your baby also responds to your adrenaline stress hormone. He will move around more if you are feeling anxious or stressed. However, try not to get yourself into these states to test your baby's reaction.

The Joy of Feeling Your Baby Move

Your baby starts to develop the ability to move within a few weeks of his conception. Once you start feeling his movements you can stay tuned in to the joy of this evidence that he is likely doing well. Bring any worries about his well-being to your doctor or midwife.

Fetal Movement