Women’s health conditions are generally studied less than men’s, and postnatal health gets more attention than postpartum health, which makes this survey the first of its kind. Is it possible for formerly pregnant women to feel phantom baby kicks? According to this study, absolutely! Women can feel these phantom kicks up to 28 years after giving birth.
The Statistics of Phantom Fetal Kicks
Researchers at Monash University, Australia, created an online survey consisting of 197 women from Australia who had gone through pregnancy. It turns out that 40% of the women had experienced phantom fetal kicks after giving birth and they lasted, on average, for 6.8 years. One woman continued to feel that sensation for 28 years.
These women ranged from the ages 18–60, most were married and were working full or part-time jobs. Their average age of conception for the first child was at 28 years old, and the women were from one to 42 years postpartum. (The researchers disqualified women who had given birth less than a year ago since they may confuse phantom kicks with the natural restoration process that occurs in the abdomen after delivery.)
Forty percent of the women who have this experience say that these kicks occurred more than once a week. Twenty percent felt the kicks daily. The participants describe the sensations as ‘convincing’, ‘real kicks’, or ‘flutters’.
“It felt like the first time I felt my baby kick. Little flutters. Then it became more distinguishable as a kick,” said one of the participants. Many agreed, with the other women stating:
“Very convincing. Still happens now sometimes and I have to convince myself I am not pregnant.”
“Convincing enough that I took a pregnancy test even though my husband had had a vasectomy.”
“If I wasn’t holding my baby, I would’ve thought I was still pregnant.”
The Emotional Effects of Phantom Fetal Kicks
These kicks can bring on differing emotions, depending on how the pregnancy went. Some women (25%) considered the phantom kicks to be a positive thing, causing a feeling of nostalgia or comfort from those happy times.
According to one participant, “Once I knew I wasn’t pregnant again, they made me smile and remember being pregnant. Something I loved.”
Other women (27%) dislike the sensation, which makes them feel confused and upset. In fact, 27% of women said the phantom kicks brought on negativity since it reminds them of abortions, stillbirths, miscarriages, or traumatic birth stories.
“It made me feel really upset that my body was still ‘fooled’ into thinking I was still pregnant,” said one unnamed participant, whose baby was delivered stillborn at 24 weeks. “[I thought the kicks were caused] by my body returning to normal [after pregnancy], combined with wishful thinking that my baby did not die.”
Why Do These Kicks Happen?
Despite these phantom kicks being experienced by a large array of women, scientists have yet to find an explanation for them. However, they did discover that these kicks can contribute to anxiety and depression for susceptible women. 
“It may be down to how our brains perceive our body,” said Philip Corlett of Yale School of Medicine. “After pregnancy, a woman’s brain could still be expecting those sensations to occur, causing some change in the body.“
“It underlines the role of expectations in perception — not just to the outside world, but of your body too. And I think that’s exciting.”
On the flipside, Susan Ayers at City, University of London comments that the study doesn’t reflect the true number of women who experience phantom fetal kicks since women are more likely to participate in the survey if they have a story to tell. 
“It’s not ‘all in your head.’”
The frequency of fetal kicks can be a big indicator of the fetus’s health for pregnant women. The study goes on to say that “results suggest if women experience fetal kicks in the absence of a fetus, then their perception of true fetal movement may be unreliable.”
These kicks cannot be dismissed as ‘it’s all in your head.’ The report stated, “Taken together, this evidence suggests that there may be an association between the emotional relationship to the baby and the sensations of phantom kicks.“
“Despite this, we found no significant relationship between the kick-like sensations and reports of postpartum cognitive or emotional change. We, therefore, argue that these sensations are unlikely to be delusions, or hallucinations, or a result of postpartum depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.”
The researchers state that the emotional and mental effects of phantom kicks should not be dismissed, especially in cases where it exacerbates already-existing anxiety conditions, or in the cases of a traumatizing birth such as a stillbirth. These women should visit their health professional for support and to prevent negative health outcomes.
- “Women Can Feel Phantom Fetus Kicks Years After Giving Birth.” Independent. Moya Lothian-McLean. November 21, 2019
- “Some women feel fetal kicks years after they’ve given birt.” New Scientist. Grace Browne. November 21, 2019
- “‘Phantom Kicks’: Women’s Subjective Experience of Foetal Kicks after the Postpartum Period.” PsyArXiv Preprints. Disha Sasan, et al. November 11, 2019