Are you familiar with the term?


An antiquated term, (except among post-modern midwives I would argue!) quickening refers to the time when a pregnant woman first feels her baby move.

I have written previously about Barbara Duden’s descriptions of the embodied knowledge of women in 18th century Germany: The woman beneath the skin. 

In another book called Disembodying Women she examines how modern pregnancy and childbirth has removed women from their bodily experiences. Her chapter on quickening raises a number of interesting issues.

Throughout history the perception of foetal movements has been the only way for  pregnancy to be diagnosed. Well, self-diagnosed. Because it is the pregnant woman and only the pregnant woman who has access to this knowledge.

And so, a woman announced her pregnancy to an audience appropriate to hear the change in her status.

Such personal authority.

As well as being a concept owned by the pregnant woman, quickening was also a legal category: “life” was seen  to have begun once the mother felt the baby move within: perhaps as “late” as 23 or 24 weeks for primigravidae or as early as 16 weeks for multigravid women.

In North America and Europe the quickening was directly related to laws surrounding termination of pregnancy: only a woman “quick with child” who aborted could be charged with a felony. This provided the woman with some expert status: no-one but she could confirm the movements and thus the baby’s gestation.

Duden quotes Mohr’s work about the paradoxical situation that arose in the US where the law did not formally recognise the foetus as existing until it quickened:

“the upshot was that American women in 1800 were legally free to attempt to terminate a condition that might turn out to have been a pregnancy until the existence of that pregnancy was incontrovertibility confirmed by the perception of fetal movement “. James Mohr (1978) Abortion in America: the origins and evolution of national policy.

Whatever injustices faced these women in their day to day life, they were at least in charge of their reproductive state by virtue of their own embodied knowledge.

Contesting the worth of this embodied knowledge,  nineteenth century laws arose that criminalised abortion – late or early, based on medical authority.  The woman effectively disappeared from the argument.

Today our gravid state is early news. A blood test at 41/2 weeks, a wee on a stick a little later, a conversation with our fertility doctor or an ultrasound at 6 weeks. We need to know early because there are things to be attended to.

But the pregnant woman’s perception of her baby’s movements still has some importance in determining the well-being of her baby: we now know that these foetal movements are actually a crucial indicator of foetal well being and adequate placental functioning. Women’s reporting of reduced foetal movements is strongly associated with stillbirth.

In the UK campaigns ask women to “count the kicks” in an effort to reconnect pregnant women with the sensations of their pregnant bodies.

Midwives in clinic in Australia dutifully urge women to attune themselves to the “normal” pattern of duration and frequency their own baby demonstrates in the kicking department. Often we receive puzzled, blank looks in response.

We all struggle because there is little evidence for what is “normal” – even though by god we’ve tried to quantify it.

We also struggle because at almost every turn in pregnancy care we disembody the experience of pregnancy for women.

From pregnancy diagnosis by peeing on a stick rather than observing physical changes, by submitting to “essential” screening of our precious foetus from the middle of the 1st trimester, by ultrasounds that “show us” our baby – a baby we already “know” exists … in all these interventions we say “technology measures your experience of this” – not you.

But please, let us know if baby isn’t moving as much as usual.

When women do report a reduction in foetal movements, there is widespread suspicion: “she’s overly anxious”, “she wants an induction”, “she doesn’t really understand what reduced foetal movements are”…

The overarching subtext is that women cannot really know their own bodies.

The thing is, in terms of baby movements – they are all we have.

As Barbara Duden outlines in Disembodying Women:

“in the course of one generation, technology along with a new discourse has transformed pregnancy into a process to be managed, the expected child into a foetus, the mother into an ecosystem, the unborn into a life, and life into a supreme value”.


2 thoughts on “Quickening.

  1. Thank you for this posting of a very important 21st century phenomenon. Quickening when first felt is often a time of joy and wonder yet now often reduced to ticking a box and a barrage of interrogation that continues to the end of pregnancy. Not to underestimate the significance of FMs but have we covered over yet another magical moment by our technocratic knowingness? Susan 😀


  2. sorry for this very delayed reply…found while “cleaning up” my inbox – one of several sweet rewards for this housekeeping duty!
    Thanks so much for “getting” my point. The post was helped along by my experience of teaching “foetal surveillance” – which is mostly about CTG’s of course, but I was intrigued by the power that women apparently possess EVEN TODAY in knowing abut their baby’s movements and when they are reduced or worrying or not normal for them. The science tells us how important it is in terms of baby outcomes to know of these changes … but little of how we can re-connect women with their babies (if they need to be). Luckily many women have the resilience or the embodied knowledge to literally save their babies when needed!


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