Fetal Movements to Expect in Each Trimester

pregnant woman holding an ultrasound scan

It is likely that one of the best moments in your pregnancy will be the first time you feel your baby move inside you. This generally occurs halfway into your second trimester, around 16-20 weeks. From this precious moment on, you will become increasingly aware of your baby's movements while they develop and mature.

The fetal movements you feel will vary by trimester. From the first movement, called the quickening, to the jabs and pokes you'll feel later on, fetal movements can help reassure you that the baby is doing well. You can even use the kick counting method to make sure your baby is thriving.

Fetal Movement By Trimester

Pregnancy can be a wonderful time for mothers with a lot of changes to their body as their child grows. 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. Fetal movement will vary by trimester. 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.

First Trimester Fetal Movements (7-12 Weeks)

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:

  • It starts with your embryo being able to bend their 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, their movements become more defined and stronger until you start to notice them for the first time.

Second Trimester Fetal Movements (13-26 Weeks)

In the second trimester, the fun starts to begin. This is when you will start to feel you baby move inside you. It's a magical time of discovery and growth.

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

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

First Felt Movements: 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.

The Cleveland Clinic points out a few factors that 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)
  • Placenta location
  • If you are pregnant with twins or other multiples, you might feel the first flutters earlier than if you have a singleton baby
  • Active or inactive fetus

At first, you might be unsure you are feeling your baby move. Stay tuned in and before long, you 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 Fetal Movements

By 24 weeks, your baby is moving around a lot. They might move their legs and change their position more often. As their movements get stronger, you might start to feel them with more certainty and 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 their entire body. The Cleveland Clinic states you should feel about 10 movements an hour. Their smiles, grimaces, feet, and hands-to-face movements are also more defined on an ultrasound.

Fetal Movement in the Third Trimester (28-40+ Weeks)

Beyond 28 weeks starts the third trimester. Your baby is getting bigger you will probably try to guess which parts are moving against your belly as they stretch, arch, swim, 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 are 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 Fetal Movements

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

If they seem 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.

Fetal Movement Before Labor

Around 35 to 38 weeks as you get closer to your due date, your baby might be turning to position themselves, 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.

Fetal Movement During Labor

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

How to Monitor and Interpret 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, they might order electronic fetal surveillance testing or ask you to do more frequent kick counts.

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 of distress. You should contact your OB specialist immediately if you notice a change in movement frequency.

Kick Counts

OB doctors consider counting your baby's kicks a standard test to make sure they are 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.

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.

Jerky Fetal Movements

A noticeable increase in jerky movements over their baseline in the late second or during the third trimester could also signal a baby in difficulty. One study shows that odd or jerky movements after 28 weeks could be a cause for concern.

Periods of Rest in Fetal Movement

Note that your baby has cycles of rest so decreased movement could just mean they're sleeping. Periods of sleep last from 20 to 90 minutes, and they will be more quiet during the day and active at night.

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

Tips to Get Your Baby to Move

Babies in the uterus respond to sound, touch, light, and 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, their hearing is developed enough, and they will move in response to sound.

Your baby also responds to your adrenaline stress hormone. They 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.

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.

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Fetal Movements to Expect in Each Trimester