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Pregnant Iowa woman counted her unborn baby's fetal kicks and saved her life

A pregnant woman dutifully counted her unborn baby's kicks each day, and sought life-saving help when the count was off one day.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Emily Eekhoff followed her doctor’s orders, and it saved her baby girl’s life.

Once she hit the 28-week mark in her pregnancy, Eekhoff make sure her unborn baby was moving enough, counting the fetal kicks each day to make sure she felt 10 movements within an hour.

“I knew that the movement was important,” said Eekhoff, 26, of Waukee, Iowa. “It indicated that the baby was alive and doing well, so it was reassuring to know that everything was OK when I reached the 10 several times a day. It was peace of mind.”

Emily Eekhoff knew something wasn't right when her unborn daughter's movements slowed down.
Emily Eekhoff knew something wasn't right when her unborn daughter's movements slowed down.Le Photo Design

But worry set in on May 30, when instead of feeling those kicks in 10 to 15 minutes like she usually did, Eekhoff detected very little movement and called her doctor. After monitoring at the hospital showed a normal heartbeat but no fetal movement, her daughter, Ruby, was born by emergency cesarean section at 33 weeks and five days.

Ruby arrived with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around her neck three times, Eekhoff said, a life-threatening condition. Grateful and proud, the new mom of two credits her kick-counting routine with saving her baby, who received oxygen at birth and was otherwise healthy at 4 pounds, 3 ounces.

“I think counting her kicks definitely saved her life because I was aware of what her normal was, and when that changed, I went in (to the doctor) instead of waiting,” she said. “Had I waited, she likely would not have lived.”

Dr. Neil Mandsager, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa, agreed.

“This most likely would have resulted in stillbirth at some point, whether it was one day, two days or three days,” said Mandsager, who read the results of Eekhoff's ultrasound and ordered the emergency delivery.

“She saved her baby’s life by paying attention to her baby’s activity,” he added.

Baby Ruby spent 20 days in the hospital and went home on June 19. “It’s really great to have her home,” Eekhoff said. “She’s doing really well.”

Today this family of four is healthy and happy to be home.
Today this family of four is healthy and happy to be home.Emily Eekhoff

Mandsager recommends his patients check for 10 movements in an hour starting at around 28 weeks of pregnancy, though there are other, slightly different methods of kick counting.

While every fetus is different, the idea is for women to recognize the typical pattern of movement in their own pregnancy, so they know what’s normal and what's not, he said. The monitoring is to try to catch conditions that can be catastrophic, primarily problems with the umbilical cord and placenta, Mandsager said.

“It’s important to monitor fetal activity to protect against the small risk of stillbirth, which still exists in otherwise healthy pregnancies,” Mandsager said. “A decrease in the baby’s movement can, in some instances, indicate that the baby is in trouble, and without intervention, could result in stillbirth.”

Like she did while pregnant with her now 2-year-old son, Eekhoff tracked fetal movements using an app called Count the Kicks, which allows users to store the data on fetal movement. The Count the Kicks public health campaign and app were created by five Iowa women who suffered a stillbirth or infant death and are aimed at preventing stillbirths.

Baby Ruby in the hospital after the emergency c-section that saved her life.
Baby Ruby in the hospital after the emergency c-section that saved her life.Emily Eekhoff

“I don’t feel like I did something miraculous,” Eekhoff said. “I’m more thankful to those that made me aware to do this. We’re so grateful that I was aware and knew to do that to save her. The opposite scenario is really scary to think about.”

Mandsager, who has served as an informal adviser to Count the Kicks and treated several of its founders, said it doesn’t matter whether women use an app or keep track of movements on scrap paper or print out a chart. “It’s not how you do it, it’s the fact that you do it on a consistent basis and you respond once you identify decreased activity,” he said.

“What I tell patients is, if they feel like the baby is not moving in the same pattern they have noticed over the weeks they’ve been counting, they should give us a call,” he said, and doctors will decide if a trip to the hospital is warranted.

Mandsager says health care providers have been recommending women count fetal movements for years, but says the message is not universally known. He recommends that all third trimester pregnant women count their kicks, a noninvasive, reliable way to monitor their pregnancy.

“Your baby’s life depends on it,” he said. contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.