What Is Quickening? An Expert Explains This Pregnancy Milestone

Quickening is a normal part of pregnancy and describes the period when a parent first starts to feel fetal movements, according to Cleveland Clinic. Sometimes, these movements are mistaken as hunger, gas, or gastrointestinal movement, but it is actually the fetus moving around in the uterus (also referred to as the womb).

By around 12 weeks, the fetus is usually already moving around in the uterus, but it's not until the midway or end point of the second trimester that the parent can actually detect this movement, per Mayo Clinic. During quickening, sensations can range from flutters to small hiccup-like feelings depending on the person and the pregnancy, and eventually, these movements will turn into more robust kicking.

"Quickening happens as baby grows and develops and starts moving more. It's not only normal, but can be reassuring for mamas experiencing it," says Liesel Teen, BSN, RN, a labor delivery nurse and founder of Mommy Labor Nurse. Feeling the fetus move is when it all starts to feel "real," she adds.

Ahead, more about quickening, what it feels like, when and why quickening happens, and when it's time to consult with your doctor.

When Can You Feel Quickening?

Quickening feels different depending on the person, but most people will feel quickening around 18 to 20 weeks, Teen says. Cleveland Clinic notes that some people may start to feel it around 16 weeks. And for others, Teen says, "it can be completely normal to feel quickening anywhere from 13 to 24 weeks."

A person's sensitivity to quickening can be affected by a few different factors, including the parent's birth history, activity level, and fetus.

For first-time parents, it's easier to miss quickening or dismiss the sensation as gas or digestion issues — meaning they may not even realize quickening is happening until later in the 13- to 24-week timeline. Second-time parents have more experience and may know what to expect, allowing them to pick up the little sensations and correctly identify them.

The parent's and fetus's activity level can also play a role, Teen says. "Because the movements are usually pretty subtle, at least in the beginning, a mom that is on her feet a lot and more active during the day might not notice quickening." Likewise, some fetuses move more than others, and this can impact quickening.

Finally, Teen says the location of the placenta can impact when a parent feels quickening. For example, someone with an anterior placenta (which simply means the placenta is positioned toward the parent's belly, with the baby behind it), will likely not feel quickening as early on. An anterior placenta is not a cause for concern and is fairly common during pregnancy, but it can make it more difficult to feel quickening and kicks or find the fetal heartbeat during doctor's visits, Cleveland Clinic says.

What Does Quickening Feel Like?

Quickening sensations vary from parent to parent. But according to Teen, quickening can feel like:

  • A little fish swimming
  • Bubbles popping
  • Popcorn popping
  • Gas bubbles
  • Someone thumping you from the inside
  • Butterflies or nervous jitters

When Does Quickening Develop Into Kicks?

"There isn't one exact timeline for each person or each pregnancy, but you can expect quickening to turn into stronger movements, such as kicks and punches, around 28-ish weeks," Teen says. It's also normal for parents to notice quickening at different times and notice variations in how strong those movements are.

However, by the third trimester, you should be feeling the fetus move regularly. Once quickening develops into kicks, other people will be able to put a hand on the parent's belly to feel the kicks from the outside as well.

At the third-trimester milestone, Teen says, your provider will likely recommend tracking the fetus's movements with daily kick counting.

"Research shows that kick counting is a free and super-effective way for mamas to track baby's well-being in the womb, spot potential problems, and even prevent stillbirth," Teen says. Kick counting involves tracking when the fetus is most active. Then, around that time each day, parents will set a timer to see how long it takes to feel 10 movements, including kicks, flutters, hiccups, and rolls. This tracking is important because it establishes a normal pattern for the fetus and can alert parents to anything abnormal or unusual happening, Teen says.

What to Do If You Don't Feel Quickening

"In a normally developing, healthy pregnancy, it is safe to say that quickening will happen, but not everyone knows they are experiencing it," Teen says. "There is a very good chance that women who report not experiencing quickening likely are confusing the movements with something else or are just unaware that they are experiencing it."

However, if you notice any changes in fetal movement — including less movement, very frequent movement, or significant changes during kick counting — Teen says it's time to see your doctor. "It's no longer recommended to try and prompt movement with cold or sugary drinks. Just call [your doctor] or go in," Teen says.