How to count fetal kicks during pregnancy

One of the most common questions someone may ask you when you’re pregnant is: Have you felt the baby kick yet?

That simple question can start you wondering. When should you begin to feel your baby move and kick? When should you worry about taking pregnancy kick counts?

What Is a Pregnancy Kick Count?

As you reach your third trimester, your doctor may ask you to regularly track fetal movement by doing pregnancy kick counts. It’s what it sounds like. You will count how often your baby kicks in a certain amount of time.

A pregnancy kick count is a way to monitor the movement of a fetus during the later stages of pregnancy. Having pregnant people do regular kick counts is a bit controversial. Your doctor may or may not suggest it.

They will likely ask if you feel fetal movements during your second-trimester visits. Fetal movement is the feeling of your fetus moving inside your uterus or womb.

But even from its first few weeks, the embryo is moving around. It just takes a while for the fetus to get strong enough for you to feel it. Increasing movement tells your doctor that the fetus is getting bigger and stronger.

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Stages of fetal movement

You will feel different fetal movements as you go through pregnancy, depending on the stage of pregnancy. Doctors define fetal movements as any kick, flutter, swish, roll, or push the pregnant person feels in their womb.

First trimester

The first trimester of pregnancy lasts from week 1 to week 12. You won’t feel any fetal movement during this time. You may have some abdominal bloating, cramps, or gas bubbles.

Second trimester

The second trimester of pregnancy lasts from week 13 to week 28. You’ll feel the first fetal movements during your second trimester. The medical term for the first movements you will feel from your baby is quickening.

These are small movements that let you know you’re pregnant. They may feel like a fluttering or flipping sensation in your lower belly.

In general, your baby becomes more active around 20 weeks. You should first feel these fetal movements between the 16th to 22nd week of pregnancy. It may take a while to be sure that what you’re feeling is real and is the baby.

If you have been to the third trimester before, you may notice fluttering as early as 16 weeks. If this is the first time you are this pregnant, you may not identify this as movement until weeks 20 to 22. By this time, it should be happening more regularly.

At first, only you can feel these movements inside your womb. By week 20, your doctor can feel the fetus moving from the outside of your belly.

Third trimester

The final and third trimester of pregnancy lasts from week 29 to week 40. By the third trimester, your doctor may want you to start tracking fetal movements with regular pregnancy kick counting. The medical term for kick counts is fetal movement count (FMC).

The number of pregnancy kicks or fetal movements often increases up until week 32 of pregnancy. After that, the kick counts should remain steady but not decrease.

During the third trimester, the baby will “drop” or move lower into your abdomen. As your due date gets closer, your baby may turn into a head-down position for birth, changing where you feel movement.

How Do You Kick Count During Pregnancy?

Your doctor may suggest starting kick counts at 28 weeks of pregnancy. You will continue tracking this regularly for the rest of the pregnancy.

Many doctors use the “count to 10” method. For this method, you will:

  • Count fetal movements at the same time each day.
  • Count these movements over 2 or 3 hours, depending on your doctor’s advice.
  • Call your doctor if you feel less than 10 kicks or fetal movements.

As it gets later in pregnancy, it’s common to feel fetal movements more at night than during the day. Because of this, your doctor may care more about the overall quantity and quality of pregnancy kicks. The daily kick count may not be as important as regularly feeling movement.

Benefits of Counting Pregnancy Kicks

Paying attention to your fetal movements during pregnancy can improve maternal-child bonding. It’s a way to get to know your baby before birth.

Tracking your fetal movements doesn’t prevent something from going wrong. It may even cause you anxiety or not be possible with your daily schedule. But kick counting may help catch issues while your doctors can do something to help.

When to Worry About Fetal Movement

As you go through pregnancy, fetal movements should increase and then plateau. Fewer pregnancy kicks or fetal movements could mean the fetus is in trouble. Doctors call a decrease in the number and strength of fetal movements “reduced fetal movement,” or RFM.

Doctors suggest paying attention to fetal movements because episodes of RFM are linked to stillbirth. Even though you may have reduced fetal movements, it doesn’t mean you will have a stillbirth. Most people who report RFM go on to have a healthy baby.

Some 10% to 15% of people have RFM in late pregnancy, according to a review in the journal Materia Socio-Medica. But the percentage of people who have stillbirths, or fetal deaths, is much lower.

If you notice a decrease in pregnancy kicks, let your doctor know. They may want to do testing to check the health of your pregnancy and fetus. Your doctor may have you do a non-stress test or ultrasound to evaluate fetal movement and health.

If your doctor determines your pregnancy is at high risk, they can monitor you more closely and help protect your pregnancy.

Fetal Movement. National Library of Medicine. Link.

Stages of Pregnancy. Office on Women's Health. Link.

Beyond the headlines: Fetal movement awareness is an important stillbirth prevention strategy. Women and Birth: Journal of The Australian College of Midwives. Feb. 2019. Link.

Reduced Fetal Movements and Perinatal Mortality. MateriaSocioMedica. Sept. 2020. Link.

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Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.