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What “quickening” is in pregnancy

Updated on April 16, 2015

You know you’re pregnant – you missed your period, got tested, got scanned and have the dreaded morning sickness. So far, other than announcing it to your husband, the pregnancy is simply a fact, and not all that pleasant. Then comes the “quickening”. Suddenly the pregnancy is real, the baby is real, and you start building a relationship with your baby.

The quickening is that first moment when you feel your baby move. Actually, your baby has been floating around all along, but is finally at a size where its movements can be felt through the uterine wall and into the abdominal muscles. At quickening, the baby is only about four inches long, and weighs just over an ounce.

The origin of the word seems to be lost, but is traced back to the fourteenth century, perhaps as the quickening of seeds. In western culture, this is often considered the beginning of “life”. William Blackstone referred to quickening in the eighteenth century:

“Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter.”

Political and legal ramifications are subject for a separate discourse. For now, we are simply recognizing and celebrating the recognition of the baby’s life by her mother.

Quickening during pregnancy occurs somewhere between the 13th and 26th weeks of gestation, depending on a variety of reasons. The sensation is often described as fluttering, butterflies, gas bubbles, indigestion, or as something inside, tapping on the uterus. It can even be mistaken for hunger pangs. Each woman experiences and describes quickening differently.

First-time mothers will usually feel it later than other mothers because they do not recognize it, and because their uterine walls are tight, maintaining more space between the uterus and the abdominal wall, which is where the sensation is actually felt. Overweight women may experience it later because the sensation has more fat to travel through to reach the surface. For this reason, women with smaller frames or who are slim will feel the baby’s movement earlier than those with large frames.

Once recognized, quickening is not a regular sensation. The baby’s movements might occur because it is in an uncomfortable position, the placenta is exposed to certain foods, there is pressure from a full stomach after meals, or because the mother is very still, as when lying down. The baby is stretching and flexing her limbs, or trying to get away from an uncomfortable position. Even this early, babies react to noise or the mother’s emotions. Eventually the mother may recognize a sleeping/waking cycle.

If the quickening sensation seems to be regular, like a tap every five to ten seconds, it might be that the baby has the hiccups.

As a woman named Denise described it, “I am an extremely ticklish person, so much so that I’ve been known to jump straight out of bed from a dead sleep if my husband were to brush against my feet. I found that I’m very ticklish on the inside too. There was more than one inappropriate time with my pregnancies to Briana … and Georgianna … that I burst out laughing because I could no longer control the tickling feeling.”

While the event of quickening is exciting and makes the pregnancy seem much more real, its timing spans a broad range, and should not be a matter of concern until after the 26th week. Eventually, you will be very aware that there is a baby bumping and kicking around in there.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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