During my pregnancy with my first baby I had a somewhat unique experience in that I was able to feel him practice breathing in the womb. Babies practice breathing movements with increasing frequency towards the end of pregnancy, but usually this is only seen via ultrasound and the mother can’t feel OR see it happening.
A mysterious sensation
I was about 32 weeks pregnant when we had a prenatal visit (and I was up to a whopping 140 pounds—looking back, that seems very thin, but at the time I felt like I had gained a lot of weight!) . Since 30 weeks I’d been feeling what I thought was the baby practicing breathing. My husband was able to feel it too, as well as occasionally physically see it—a rhythmic sort of pulsing sensation located where the baby’s back was and feeling like a rising/falling breath type sensation (like a cat under a blanket). I noticed it once or twice daily. Very different than the hiccups, which I also felt often. I wanted to mention it to the doctor to see if that was really what I was feeling, because lots of books and things say you won’t be able to feel those movements, but I didn’t want to be wrong and be embarrassed for having a kooky idea about feeling him breathe. (When we mentioned the feeling to my mom, she looked at us like we were quite nutty to think we could feel it!)
A prenatal appointment and a doctor’s surprise
At the prenatal appointment, I laid down to have my fundal height measured (32) and the baby’s heartbeat checked and he was conveniently doing the breathing thing at that exact moment! My husband asked the doctor about it and told her we thought it was breathing. She quickly disregarded the breathing hypothesis, saying it was unlikely we’d be able to feel that, but she was fascinated by the movements and listened with the Doppler trying to figure it out etc. She thought for a minute that it had something to do with my pulse and checked that, but it didn’t match, plus was just on one side of my belly where his back is. She also felt with her hands, etc. It was particularly strong that day—usually I felt a sort of pulsing and could also feel it with my hand. On this occasion, it was like the left side of my belly was rising and falling rhythmically in a very noticeable way. She said she’d never felt or seen anything like it before.
Then (this was the weird part), she said that maybe I should have an ultrasound to see what the baby was doing in there. This doctor was a crunchy-mild-mannered-has-you-call-her-by-her-first-name-homebirth-attending -birth-center-low-intervention-doesn’t-break-your-water-unless-the-baby-is-born-in-the-sac sort of doctor, so I was really shocked by that. I said I really didn’t think that was necessary, because I wasn’t worried about it we just thought it was breathing (again, we get a look that vaguely implies that we are nutty). She kept saying she’d never seen it before and said she was going to call one of her consulting doctor friends, “just because I’m curious,” to see what he thought about maybe needing an ultrasound.
After she left to call him, I started to feel nervous that something might actually be wrong. I knew how this doctor was and she did not seem like the type at all who would be calling other doctors unless she was a little worried about something. My husband kept saying that, “no, she is just curious about what it is,” but the “curious” wording felt to me like a don’t-want-alarm-the-mother-but-I-think-something-is-up type of doctor speak. Also, I knew her well enough to know that running off to call other people in the middle of an appointment wasn’t in character for her, especially since the mom (me) was saying it didn’t seem necessary. So, I briefly became petrified that the baby was having seizures or something.
Trust the mother!
She came back in a bit and had consulted with her ultrasound doctor friend who had said, “let me guess. This mom is thin and very healthy” and then confirmed that it was just the baby’s breathing movements we were seeing. He told her that you usually don’t see them on the outside, just via ultrasound, but it is still normal and just means that the baby is healthy and he is getting good practice. When she came back, the doctor also brought the practice’s midwife in to see, since the midwife had never seen anything like it either, but it had mostly stopped by then. This doctor has been in practice since 1992 and has had four kids of her own and the midwife has six kids and a 20-year practice. The doctor explained that she’d seen the breathing movements on ultrasound before, but they were always more like occasional gasp-type things, not steady and pulsing like that and not visible externally. She thanked me for teaching her something new :)
I liked being right about what was going on (trust the mother! She usually knows what’s up!) and I liked that my pregnancy had something “new” or special to it to show to someone for whom pregnancy is quite routine. Being able to feel my baby breathe in the womb was one of the special things about this first pregnancy.
(Side note: the doctor then said, “I’ll bet he comes out screaming” and as a matter of fact this baby did begin to cry when only his head was sticking out of my body!)
Note (added 3/2/2013):
A lot of mothers come to this post because of concerns similar to my own…what if my baby is having seizures in the uterus? Of course I am not able to tell you with 100% certainty that your baby is not having seizures, but here are two things to pay attention to that may set your mind at ease and allow you to enjoy this special connection with your baby:
- One way to help you feel confident that it is practice breathing is to pay attention to whether it happens at the same time(s) each day. There’s usually a pattern to it.
- Another way to tell with almost total accuracy is to notice if the baby gets hiccups shortly after and “episode.” A lot of babies will practice breathe and then get hiccups from their practice.
This post is modified from a message board posting that I made shortly after the events described above.
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