Amazingly an unborn baby starts to physically move by about 10 weeks of the pregnancy. This is when all their large muscles have developed, forming a thickened layer of padding between their bones and skin.
Their movements begin as jerky and uncoordinated actions of their arms and legs, becoming more purposeful as they mature. These early activities are not usually felt by the mother, but can sometimes be witnessed during an ultrasound. It is now recognised that a baby's movements inside the womb are important to stimulate their muscle growth and development, maintain the flexibility of their joints and help the shaping and strengthening of their bones and the development of their nervous system.
The woman will start to feel her baby move once they have grown strong enough to place an adequate amount of pressure on the walls of her uterus to stimulate the nerves in the skin of her belly. A woman's uterus (or womb) does not have sensory nerves capable of detecting the baby's movements, nor do her intestines that lie behind the uterus. This means that only movements that are directed towards the front of a woman's uterus (towards her belly surface) will be felt. However, if the baby's movements are strategically placed (or the baby is lying in a certain position), sensations may also be felt by the woman in her pelvic area around her cervix, vagina, bladder and bottom (or anus). Once the baby is quite large, movements and pressure may also be felt in the woman's ribs, pubic bone and lower back. You can read more about the anatomy and physiology of the woman's pregnant body here.
During the middle of the pregnancy an unborn baby has plenty of room to move and is like a buoyant, astronaut floating in a sea of amniotic fluid. This allows your baby to roll and somersault vigorously producing many kicks and jabs throughout this phase. It is amazing and exciting to watch your belly move gracefully in one movement (like a wave) and then see sudden sections protrude out with a kick or an elbow! Thoughts of your baby playing football or soccer as a child are often humorous comments made by parents when their baby is very active!
As the pregnancy progresses and your baby grows larger in a more confined space, their ability to move freely lessens and they are restricted to pushing, turning, rolling and stretching their body, elbows, knees, hands and feet. Your baby's ability to move may also be further restricted once their head engages during the final weeks of pregnancy. However, they should not move any less, just differently when compared to earlier in the pregnancy.
When will I feel it?
Feeling your unborn baby move is something that most women and their partners anticipate with great impatience. Sensing this for the first time is a thrilling and exciting experience as well as a wonderful confirmation of your baby's growth and presence. Fathers (and siblings) feeling their new baby move will often experience a closer connection with them. The medical term for when a woman feels her baby move is called 'quickening' and before the invention of modern pregnancy tests it was often one of the first physical signs that confirmed a viable pregnancy.
Your unborn baby's first movements can be difficult to distinguish, especially if this is your first pregnancy. A question commonly asked is, "Is that my baby moving or just wind?' Many women describe their first sensations as a faint, fluttering feeling (like 'butterflies') or like small bubbles 'popping' in your belly. Others describe a 'scratching' internal feeling (especially if it is felt very early in the pregnancy). One woman described hers as a similar feeling to when your muscles involuntarily 'twitch', but coming from inside her belly. Generally, after 2 or 3 weeks of infrequent and sporadic sensations, the feelings become stronger and resemble more definite kicks and movements. Before long it becomes very obvious they could be nothing else but your little one wriggling around!
The woman will internally sense her baby moving first. The timing of this is very individual but it will usually happen at some stage during the second trimester of the pregnancy (between 12 to 28 weeks). In most cases, some form of awareness is first sensed between 18 to 22 weeks of the pregnancy, but a few women will notice occasional, vague sensations from as early as 12 to 13 weeks, and others will not feel their baby definitely 'kick' until about 23 to 25 weeks. Your partner and others will not be able to sense the baby moving by touching your belly until about 2 to 4 weeks after you do (bearing in mind that this is a general guide and the timing may be longer, especially if the woman is sensing her baby move very early).
As the woman, when you first feel your baby move can depend on many factors including:
If this is your first or subsequent baby
Women who have had a baby before will often notice the movements of subsequent babies much earlier in the pregnancy. This may be because of an increase in their sensitivity or the fact that the woman 'knows' what the sensations feel like and is more in tune with detecting them. Also subsequent babies can feel much more active. It is thought that the uterus, muscles and ligaments surrounding the baby are more flexible during subsequent pregnancies, allowing your baby more 'room to move'.
Where the baby's placenta is situated
The woman's uterus is like a balloon with the placenta being attached to the inside wall of it. During middle pregnancy the placenta is about the size of a small butter plate and approximately one to two centimetres thick. The most common place for the placenta to implant in the lining of the uterus is 'posteriorly', or towards the back of the uterus closest to the woman's intestines. The placenta can also implant on the roof of the uterus (also referred to as 'in the fundus') or at the sides of the uterus (laterally to the left or right). However, for some women the placenta implants 'anteriorly', or towards the front of the uterus closest to the woman's outer belly. When the placenta is 'anterior' it can act like a small cushion between the baby and the woman's skin. This has the effect of blunting the sensations, making them more difficult for the woman to detect.
Many women with anterior placentas will comment on how they did not feel their baby move until 22 to 24 weeks (or later) and that they do not sense their baby's movements as often for the remainder of the pregnancy.
NOTE: The position of the placenta is one feature that is identified during an ultrasound if it is performed after about 16 to 20 weeks of the pregnancy (the position of the placenta is not really evident by ultrasounds done earlier in the pregnancy).
The woman's build and size
Once the uterus moves out of the woman's pelvis (at about 12 weeks) it is covered by layers of body tissues. The closest layer to the uterus is the thick abdominal muscles. This is followed by a layer of fat and then the skin of the belly. When a woman has a fine layer of fat over her belly, the baby's movements can be more readily sensed by the nerves in her skin. This makes it easier for her (and others) to feel the baby's movements. If the layer of fat is thicker, then this may delay the sensations of movements.
NOTE: If you are more than 22 to 24 weeks pregnant and you feel your baby is active, a strategy you can use to show others how your baby is moving is to place a light object (such as a paper napkin or even a small plate) on top of your belly while lying down. As your baby kicks the object will move, often to the delight and amazement of onlookers! Partners may also feel movements during the night as you lie behind him and the baby gives him a kick in the back!
Baby movement patterns
Once the baby's movements are initially sensed, their activity is often not detected by the mother every day, even though the baby is moving quite frequently. However, within a few weeks, the sporadic sensations then become more regular and frequent as your baby grows bigger and stronger. Usually happening several times a day, every day.
Unborn babies have definite 'sleep and wake' cycles. These will vary from baby to baby but it is thought that they can sleep for as much as 85 to 95 per cent of the time while inside the uterus. Unborn babies are usually active every one to two hours for about 10 to 40 minutes or so, before drifting back off to sleep. As the pregnancy progresses, you may notice that your baby has regular 'wake periods' around the same time each day. (For example, in the evenings just when you are going to bed!)
Other things that may affect your baby's movements are:
The way the baby is lying
Depending on what position your baby is in they may tend to be more or less active. Movements to the back of the uterus are not really felt as much as movements to the front of the belly.
What you eat
Unborn babies can respond by moving about 20 minutes or so after their mothers eat or drink certain foods. This can occur after having something very sweet or sugary (such as chocolate, a fizzy drink, ice cream or cake) or after having something that has a stimulant in it, such as caffeine in cola and coffee drinks.
When a pregnant woman walks and moves around, she naturally 'rocks' her baby in the womb. This is thought to be why many babies are more likely to move when their mother is sitting and resting and perhaps why our babies like to be carried and 'rocked' after being born! However, physical activity can stimulate a baby's movement and many women notice their baby is very active after a swim or long walk.
Babies are capable of hearing from about 19 to 26 weeks of the pregnancy and are known to respond to familiar noises after being born (such as their mother's, father's or a siblings' voice). From observing babies in utero with ultrasound we know they often respond by turning towards relaxing and classical type music and curling up and away from very loud rock and pop type music. Most unborn babies also respond by kicking and moving after a very loud sound.
While you may occasionally make a loud sound for your baby to 'respond' to, unborn babies frequently exposed to loud noises can exhibit disturbed sleeping behaviours after birth. This is thought to occur because the unpredictable loud sounds wake them up in the womb, disturbing their natural sleep cycles.
Your baby's personality
Women who have more than one baby will often comment on their different 'behaviours' during the pregnancy. You may find that you have a 'quieter' baby who tends to move comparatively less, or a more active baby compared to a previous child. Keep in mind that subsequent pregnancies do tend to favour more activity for the baby because they generally have more 'room to move' and also how your baby 'behaves' in utero does not always reflect what they will be like after the birth!
Concerns about baby movements
Many pregnant women at one stage or another of their pregnancy will express concerns about how frequently their baby is moving, or that they are worried because they haven't felt their baby move for a while. Movements of your baby are a positive sign that they are indeed alive and your caregiver will often ask whether you have felt your baby move at your pregnancy visits. Even so, there can be many reasons why you may not sense your baby move for various periods of time, often because they are asleep.
One of the most common reasons for a woman not to sense her baby's movements as frequently is the level of 'adjustment' her body has to her baby's movements as the pregnancy progresses. When your baby first kicks and moves it is such a strange and new sensation that most women tune in to every little feeling. However, as these feelings become more familiar and regular, many women get used to them in a sense, often to the point that after a busy day, they may wonder whether their baby has moved much (if at all). There may also be concerns if your baby stops moving every time someone places their hand on your belly. This happens often and we don't really know why. Perhaps your baby feels reassured and settled when someone puts their hand on them!
If you are concerned about your baby's movements you should contact your caregiver. However, you may want to try the following in an attempt to get them to move:
Resting and sitting quietly with your baby without distractions, usually lying down on your side. Your baby should move within 60 to 75 minutes. Some women find having a deep bath helps.
Having an icy cold drink. For some reason this seems to work.
It used to be thought that by having something sweet to eat or drink, this would give the baby glucose to encourage them to move. However, it is now thought that a low blood sugar is more likley to encourage baby movements.
Gently massaging your belly or even giving your baby some gentle prods with your fingers.
Making a relatively loud noise (not too loud) such as someone blowing a raspberry on your belly.
If your baby is still not responding in any way after an hour or two, you should contact your caregiver for advice. If it is out of hours (or you do not have your own caregiver), contact the delivery suite or birth centre of the hospital you are attending. They will usually advise you to come in as soon as possible so they can listen to your baby's heart rate. They may also place you on a CTG monitoring machine to record their heart beat over 20 to 30 minutes or so. You can read more in monitoring.
It is better to be reassured and to have peace of mind that your baby is OK by listening to their heartbeat, rather than continuing to be worried and concerned at home. Your caregiver may also give you a kick chart to record your baby's daily movements for the next few days or weeks or until the end of the pregnancy. The use of a kick chart is explained in depth in tests during pregnancy.
Some unborn babies hiccough (or 'hiccup') quite frequently when growing inside their mother's womb and are in fact capable of doing so from as early as about 12 weeks of the pregnancy. This is very normal (but does not happen with all babies) and is generally caused by the sudden, irregular contractions of their immature diaphragm (the muscle that supports their lungs). Many newborn babies continue to hiccough after birth.
You may sense your baby hiccoughing by your belly having small rhythmic 'jumps' every 10 to 20 seconds or so, for several minutes up to an hour or so. A very strange sensation!
Related pregnancy articles: