One of the scariest things an expectant mother can have worries about is what may be going on in her womb when she feels a thing or a movement.
Worse still, a fetal seizure in womb.
However, to fully understand this topic, you should know what a seizure is and what hiccups mean.
Nonetheless, there is nothing to worry about as you will understand everything very soon.
This article is research-based and aims to cover every aspect of fetal seizures in the womb, including symptoms, causes, frequency, how long an episode may last, and what you could do when in such a situation.
Seizures – What it is
According to Mayo Clinic (1), a seizure is “a sudden, uncontrolled burst of electrical activity in the brain” that can cause changes in behavior, movement, feelings, and levels of consciousness.
John Hopkins Medicine (2) also defines seizure as when “one or more parts of the brain has a burst of abnormal electrical signals that interrupt normal brain signals.”
While this explanation covers seizures in adults according to the change in behavior, feelings, and level of consciousness peculiar to adults, your concern may be if such episodes may pass on to an unborn baby or if at all they experience seizures this way.
Hiccups (3), on the one hand, are repeated spasms or sudden movement of the diaphragm. Unfortunately, this movement cannot be controlled.
This diaphragm is a muscle located just below the lungs that separate your chest from your abdomen and help with breathing.
Hiccups (temporary – less than 48hrs) can be caused by simple issues such as:
- Eating too much
- Drinking carbonated beverage
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Being under stress
- Exposure to sudden temperature changes, or
- Swallowing air, say when chewing a gum
However, when hiccups last more than 48hrs, there may be severe underlining issues like:
- Nerve damage
- Metabolic issues
- Central nervous system disorders
On the other hand, fetal hiccups happen later in the second trimester, usually week 24, or sometimes from the third trimester. It feels like pulsing or rhythmic jerks coming from one side of your belly.
Fetal Seizures or Hiccups?
So far, none of these two, seizures or hiccups, is directly related to pregnancy or a baby in the womb.
While seizure may involve making a “movement,” it should not be confused with jerky spastic fetal movements during pregnancy, which is a sudden involuntary muscular contraction that may repeatedly occur due to your baby’s movements.
Fetal hiccups are pulsing or rhythmic jerks coming from one side of your belly.
However, cases of fetal seizures reported have reports of “rapid, repetitive fetal movement.”
Therefore, you should observe closely what you feel and take the necessary steps to seek professional help.
Can Babies have Seizures in the Womb?
Now the big question.
While there are information that says there are few reports on cases of fetal seizures during pregnancy and assumed to be a rare occurrence, the Journal of Korean Medical Science has reported that “there have been several reports of fetal seizures that are witnessed during ultrasonography or perceived by the mother” (4,5,6).
However, there is the first report of a fetal seizure that was diagnosed and documented in a case report by the Journal of Korean Medical Science (4).
This is to say that, yes, babies can have seizures in the womb, and pregnant women must be aware of such occurrences and seek medical help when they feel different movements from normal.
Note that there is a difference between fetal seizure in the context of this article (in the womb) and neonatal seizure, which occurs in a newborn (after birth).
What Do Fetal Seizures Feel Like?
According to the publications available from case studies, there are peculiar signs pregnant women felt and, when diagnosed, were fetal seizures.
- A feeling of rapid, repetitive fetal movement
- Mother’s perception (maternal instinct is ‘often’ right)
- Ultrasonography (the diagnosis)
Other feelings that may be associated with fetal seizures include:
- Abnormal forceful, jerky, and periodic fetal movement
How can I tell the difference in my baby’s movement and when it may be a seizure?
While movement in the womb is normal during pregnancy and varies in women and pregnancies, it follows a unique pattern that you should pay attention to.
You will find more information on jerky spastic fetal movements during pregnancy.
When you feel different movements from the usual pattern you must have been used to, it’s time to pay careful attention and seek help.
An abnormal, forceful, rapid, and/or repetitive jerky periodic movement may indicate a seizure, and you should seek help.
What Causes Babies to Have Seizures in The Womb
According to the case report by the Journal of Korean Medical Science (4), the most common cause of babies having seizures in the womb is a congenital anomaly, which mainly originates in the central nervous system (7).
- Malformation of the central nervous system
- Restriction of limb movement (hands and feet)
- Severe growth restriction
Other disorders (7) may be associated with prenatal seizures, such as:
- Pontocerebellar hypoplasia?
- Pena-Shokeir syndrome
- Arthrogryposis multiplex congenital
In the worst-case scenario, neonatal death or stillbirth may occur.
Fetal Seizures Symptoms – How Can You Tell If Your Baby Is Having a Seizure in The Womb
While no specific symptoms have been established if a baby may be having a seizure in the womb or not, there are characteristic signs of seizure-like symptoms (8).
They include (8):
- Repetitive, episodic movement that lasts as long as a seizure episode, and
- Regular movement at a frequency that is similar to that of a seizure activity
However, ultrasonography (ultrasound) will diagnose an abnormal fetal movement, such as a fetal seizure.
How Long Do Fetal Seizures Last in The Womb
Fetal seizures can last anywhere from 30-60 seconds with motion intervals of 1-5 minutes and may begin in the second trimester.
The reported case study (2) shows that the pregnant mother first perceived a seizure activity at 28 weeks.
In another study (7), the pregnant woman was diagnosed at 31 weeks.
How Common Are Fetal Seizures?
Fetal seizures may occur on repeated occasions and at a frequency that varies from two movements/sec in clonic convulsions to several times/min in lightening convulsions, usually involving the whole baby’s body.
Fetal seizure during pregnancy may continue even after birth, as reported.
However, fetal seizure is documented to have rarely been reported or underreported (7).
Should you be Worried? – Final Thought & Wrap Up
While no mother wants to be faced with the worry of pregnancy complications, or the thought of seizures in the womb, early awareness is vital.
As a pregnant woman, paying attention to your baby’s movement is best; when you observe something different, you should seek professional advice immediately.
An informed decision-making process can begin with your partner and your obstetrician toward delivering a “neurologically impaired neonate.”
This will also help ahead of the emotional and medical challenges most likely to come.
(1) Seizures – seizures
(2) John Hopkins Medicine: Seizures – Evaluation of a first time seizure
(3) Hiccups – hiccups
(4) Journal of Korean Medical Science – Prenatal Diagnosis of Fetal Seizure: A Case Report
(8) Fetal seizure symptoms – Fetal seizures: further observations