Counting kicks, AKA how not to lose your mind during PAL

It’s 7:00 on a Monday evening. I’m suffering from a small cold, tired, and mentally whipped following my third trip to labor and delivery earlier that day due to concerns over possibly decreased fetal movement (during which everything, once again, checked out OK). There are many things I could do. Head into the kitchen to help Zack with the dishes. Play games with Zoe. Collapse into bed. But I’m rooted to the dining room chair, unwilling to move from my spot, because the baby is kicking up a storm. And I’m afraid that if I get up, he’ll stop, and I’ll start worrying again.

Welcome to pregnancy after loss. When you’re so focused on monitoring fetal movement that your mind plays tricks on you and the slightest pause or decline can send your levels of anxiety skyrocketing. When you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t fall back asleep for hours, because you’re paying attention to how your baby is moving. When you can’t take a nap, because the baby is moving and you’re monitoring the movement, or your baby is not moving and you’re waiting for him to start moving again. When you’re constantly afraid that your baby has died or is about to die. When most of the people in your life fail to comprehend how much of an ordeal it is just to make it through the day, and you start to feel even more isolated on this Planet Where Your Baby Died.

6 kicks, 10 kicks, your baby’s pattern—what’s a mom to do?

Now into the mix let’s throw a heaping a dose of confusion and disagreement over what constitutes normal fetal movement.

Here’s what the American Pregnancy Association has to say on the topic:

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that you time how long it takes you to feel 10 kicks, flutters, swishes, or rolls. Ideally, you want to feel at least 10 movements within 2 hours. You will likely feel 10 movements in less time than that.

But over in the UK, the Kicks Count charity offers starkly different advice:

There is no set number of kicks you should be feeling, what is important is that you know what is normal for your individual baby. If you notice a decrease in your baby’s regular movement pattern contact your midwife.

There is a common misconception that you should be feeling 10 kicks over a set period, this is no longer recommended as all babies are different. You can find out more here about the origins of ‘count to ten’ and why it is not used. Baby’s movements can vary from 4 to over 100 every hour so counting to 10 kicks would be irrelevant for most of the population. It is important to know what is normal for your baby and report any change in that.

The organization further notes:

One of the greatest challenges is the lack of consensus on what is a ‘normal’ number of fetal movements and over what specified time frame. Fetal movements vary from four to 100 every hour and so definitions of reduced fetal movement based on counting less than 10 movements in two, 12 or 24 hours are unhelpful.

For a mum who usually feels her baby move 50 times over 12 hours, if the baby reduced their movements to only 20 it could be a sign the baby is in distress. However if she used the count to ten method, she would not seek help as she met the ‘recommended’ number.

Likewise a woman who usually only feels 8, may end up phoning the hospital unnecessarily every day as she never meets the ten required.

The other issue with fixing a set number of fetal movements is there is no way to know what a woman is classing as her baby’s movements. Because it relies on perceptions from individuals rather than an independent monitoring system, there may be major differences between what one mum counts as her baby moving and what another counts as hers.

Therefore the safest and most reliable method of monitoring baby’s movements is to encourage the mum to get to know her baby’s own pattern of movement. She will then be able to determine if her baby has a period of reduced or increased fetal movement.

Count the Kicks, an effort of the admirable Healthy Birth Day stillbirth prevention organization, recommends a sort of amalgamation of these recommendations, instructing women to count the amount of time it takes to feel 10 movements, noting that could be hours for some babies and minutes for others, and to call the doctor if there is any significant change in movement.

With all of these recommendations out there, the obstetric community seems to be all over the map in terms of the type of fetal monitoring they recommend to moms. After one of my visits to labor and delivery, the hospital sent me home with a paper that alternately recommends contacting your doctor if:

  • You feel a change in the number of movements
  • You feel fewer than 10 kicks in 2 hours after counting twice

Meanwhile, my MFM’s office, which is generally pretty with it when it comes to stillbirth prevention, sent me home with a piece of paper that contains such alarming recommendations as:

  • If you have felt NO MOVEMENT by 2:00 pm on any day, call your doctor for advice.
  • If you haven’t felt 10 movements by 8:00 pm, write down the number you actually felt and call your doctor for advice.

The paper also recommends to stop at 30 during kick counts and to look for at least 6 movements in one hour during your count; “if you do not get 6 movements during the second hour, call your doctor at once.”

What constitutes normal?

The recommendation of the Kicks Count charity seems to make the most sense to me (and indeed, the folks over at the Star Legacy Foundation inform me that the 10 kicks in 2 hours guideline is based on 30-year-old research that many believe was improperly conducted, while the UK guidelines are based on a 2009 study). It’s quite common for my baby to move more than 100 or even 150 times in an hour, so if movements suddenly dropped to 12 or 8, while technically more than the recommended number of 10 or 6, it would be a cause for alarm. I certainly wouldn’t wait until 2 p.m. without feeling movement to call my doctor, nor would I wait until 8:00 p.m. if I’d only felt 10 movements.

However, determining what is a “normal pattern” for my baby has been quite a challenge, simply because he is a human being and doesn’t move in exactly the same way or at exactly the same time every day. He can have active days followed by sleepy days, active mornings followed by sleepy afternoons, sleepy mornings followed by active afternoons, and so forth. Many kick count guidelines recommend drinking juice, counting after a meal, and/or lying on your side, but my baby’s response to these actions has been everything from kicking up a storm to stirring in his sleep. Sometimes at 8:30 p.m. he’s got the heebie jeebies and sometimes he’s deep asleep.

Consequently, I’ve spent quite a bit of time since the second trimester crafting a kick count strategy that minimizes my anxiety and maximizes the amount of control I feel over the outcome of this pregnancy (although I am the first to admit I haven’t always been successful in this regard). I wanted to share some of my tips here, in case other baby loss moms find them useful.

Choose a number that works for you. In the second trimester around 24 weeks, I would often count all day long, or frequently throughout the day, in order to build up some objective data on how much baby was actually moving and to begin to look for patterns. Although it helped me to see that the baby was much more active than I’d made it out to be in my mind, this was tedious and mentally and emotionally exhausting. At the end of the second trimester and beginning of the third, I cut back to four hourlong counts a day (first thing in the morning, lunchtime, late afternoon, and nighttime). Now I’m at the point where I’ve been monitoring for so long that I have an instinctive feel for when the “pattern” is off (and I’m also being seen by a doctor three times a week), so I’m more often doing 1-2 counts a day, and less frequently 3, depending on how much activity there is on a given day. On active days I am likely to do fewer counts.

The point is to pick an amount of monitoring that gives you the reassurance you need to get through the day without being in a constant state of panic. It’ll be different for every baby loss mom, I think. Some may find comfort in counting all day and some may be content with just one count. Do whatever helps you to feel more in control. You may need to play around with it at first, and you may find yourself adjusting as the pregnancy progresses.

I use the Baby Kick Counter by Michael Kale app, recommended by Christine over at the chickydoodles blog (in the App Store, you’ll find it when you search for “kick counter”). It allows you to count all day whereas other apps stop at 10. You can also hit a button to easily count for an hour or count to 10. And it charts movements for the past several hours and days, and logs all the results of your hourlong and 10 counts.

Find your prompt. As I mentioned earlier, kick count guidelines often recommend counting after a meal or some juice or while lying on your side. If that works for you, go for it! Personally, I am just as likely to get a count above 100 while sitting up in a chair on an empty stomach than while lying on my side immediately after dinner. Ditto with a count of 50, which is low for my baby. So unfortunately, I haven’t been able to rely on a consistent prompt.

Chart the data. At around 28 weeks I started a spreadsheet for recording kick count results. This is much more objective than relying on memory and also helps me to compare results and to see how much movement has been consistently increasing the past two months. With placental insufficiency the cause of Luke’s death, I’ve been on the lookout for a gradual decrease in movements over a period of days or longer. Having all the data in the spreadsheet allows me to better assess what’s going on.

Enlist a buddy. I report most of my kick count results to my husband. This is helpful for a few reasons. First, if a count seems low we can decide together whether to go in for monitoring. And it allows my husband to also be aware of how the pattern is developing over time, so that he has more context if movement starts to drop. This helps take some of the pressure off me and involves someone who can be more objective and rational and is not caught up in and worrying about movement 24/7.

Let sleeping babes sleep. When I first started doing kick counts, I would often wake the baby up if I thought it had been too long since the last movement. However, I’m now familiar enough with his pattern to know that he rarely goes more than 45 minutes without moving. Since I want him to be a good sleeper on the outside, I no longer disturb his sleep by trying to get him to move.

When in doubt, extend the count. Since my baby isn’t always active at the same time of day, I can’t always expect the same result each day. If I do a count and get a result that’s lower than normal, or simply lower than I’d like it to be, sometimes I will extend the count for another hour. Usually in that time the baby will wake up some and I’ll get a better result.

Dial up your doctor. Each mom will determine whether there is a change or “significant” change in pattern differently. For me, on occasions when I’ve gotten kick count results that are on the low end of normal, or when the period between counts seems sleepier than usual, or when the baby has gone longer than normal without a sustained period of activity, I’ve gone in for monitoring. (In my previous two pregnancies, I doubt I would have even noticed these subtle variations.) I’ve been doing this so intensely and for so long now that I know that each of these scenarios can actually be “normal,” and while I won’t say that I don’t start to panic and worry, I don’t immediately go to Def Con 5. I give it a little more time and if after a few hours I still feel something isn’t right, I pick up the phone.

The point is that in a pregnancy after loss, and really in a pregnancy in general, there’s no such thing as going in too frequently to have something checked out if it doesn’t feel right. And if your doctor isn’t on board with that, then he or she isn’t doing the job.

Having an itchy trigger finger can be exhausting, though, and lead to burnout. So I do think it’s helpful to establish guidelines for what you yourself feel is not normal for your baby. Unfortunately, no one can tell you what that is, nor will it always be crystal clear, especially if you have an independent mover. And that’s one of the things that makes pregnancy after loss so tough.

Celebrate your milestones. In a pregnancy after loss, when fetal movement is never far from the back of your mind, just getting through the day can be exhausting. I think it’s important for baby loss moms to celebrate the passage of their pregnancy. For me I do that with a simple highly visible sign on my dresser that notes the number of days until the next gestational week, as well as the number of days remaining until week 37.

I hope other BLMs find these tips useful, and pick the ones that work for them. In reading back through this blog, I realize it may sound like I’m somewhat functional and on top of things. The reality is that this is the most intense period of my life I’ve ever had to endure, and on some days completing just small tasks can be a struggle. It’s difficult to enjoy life when you’re on constant alert for whether your baby has died, or is about to die. And so while my carefully crafted kick count strategy helps me get through the day in a marginally functional way, the marking of yet another day off the calendar continues to bring sweet relief.

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7 thoughts on “Counting kicks, AKA how not to lose your mind during PAL

  1. Thank you for this post! We’ve only been kick counting a couple weeks but my OB and MFM have such different ideas of what an appropriate of movement is. These tips are helpful and it’s nice to hear another loss mom’s thoughts on the subject. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are one of the strongest people I know, Angela. Your attention to detail and your research has probably helped more women/families that you will know. Sending love and thoughts to each of you! — Mel

    Liked by 1 person

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