Couvade Syndrome: When Expectant Dads Get Pregnancy Symptoms

A couple of expecting parents both wake up with nauseaCouvade syndrome is a condition in which men with pregnant partners begin to experience symptoms of pregnancy. The causes of Couvade syndrome aren’t fully understood, though several theories exist. This condition has not been recognized as either a medical or mental health issue.

What Are Sympathy Pregnancies?

A sympathy pregnancy occurs when a pregnant woman’s partner experiences pregnancy symptoms. Called Couvade syndrome when it occurs in men, it might also be referred to as pregnant dad syndrome, male pregnancy experience, or sympathetic pregnancy.

Though symptoms can vary, they usually involve some combination of the following:

  • Gastrointestinal issues like nausea, stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Back pain, leg cramps
  • Changes in appetite, weight gain
  • Toothache
  • Respiratory issues
  • Issues with urination or genital discomfort
  • Symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • Restlessness, sleeplessness, other changes in sleep habits
  • Decreased libido

Symptoms of this condition usually appear in the first trimester, around the third month of pregnancy. They improve temporarily during the second trimester, in most cases, and return in the third trimester. Once the baby is born, symptoms typically disappear.

Sympathy Pregnancy vs. Phantom Pregnancy

A similar condition called pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy, might be confused with Couvade syndrome. However, pseudocyesis has been recognized as a mental health issue. It’s listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a somatic symptom disorder.

Pseudocyesis, a somewhat rare condition, occurs more commonly in Africa than in Europe or America. Women with this condition become convinced they are pregnant when they are not. They may show pregnancy symptoms such as:

  • Swollen breasts and stomach
  • Light periods or no periods at all
  • Morning sickness
  • Feeling fetal movement
  • Labor pains at estimated due date (this only happens in 1% of cases)

Research has suggested several potential causes for phantom pregnancies. Some cases may result from a strong desire to become pregnant, hence why it occurs more commonly among couples experiencing infertility. Other cases may occur due to an intense fear of becoming pregnant. Some studies have suggested pseudocyesis may develop within the context of depression and its accompanying endocrine changes.

What Causes Couvade Syndrome?

A number of theories attempt to explain how Couvade syndrome develops. One or more of these factors may contribute to the occurrence of Couvade syndrome, though medical experts still don’t know why some men develop the condition.

Somatization

Somatic symptoms are real physical symptoms that result from emotional distress. It’s common for new parents to feel anxiety or stress about the birth of their child, no matter how excited or happy they feel. It’s believed that feelings of anxiety or stress may lead to somatic symptoms resembling those of pregnancy.

Becoming a parent also marks a change in an adult’s role in society. This can also lead to feelings of stress and anxiety, whether a person realizes it or not. Researchers have suggested some men manifest pregnancy symptoms as a way of unconsciously dealing with how they feel about their new responsibilities and the changes they’ll experience.

Changes in hormone levels

Some research has shown men whose partners are pregnant may experience hormone changes, such as decreased testosterone and increased estradiol. It’s possible these hormonal changes could contribute to many symptoms of Couvade syndrome.

Feelings of attachment

Men who are more involved with a partner’s pregnancy and have more fetal involvement (listening to the heartbeat, feeling movement, and so on) may be more likely to experience pregnancy symptoms. Participating in pregnancy-related events and being involved in childbirth preparations may lead some men to feel closer to their unborn child and identify more strongly with the role of father. This may lead to sympathy pregnancy symptoms, according to some experts.

Psychosocial causes

Some doctors believe Couvade syndrome relates to mental health. Common explanations for symptoms include:

  • Envy of a partner’s ability to become pregnant and give birth
  • Guilt over getting their partner pregnant
  • A sense of rivalry regarding the role of parenthood

However, these are only potential theories, and none have been proven through research.

How Common Is Couvade Syndrome?

Men all over the world experience Couvade syndrome. Studies have found varying rates in different parts of the world, but the most recent statistics suggest Couvade syndrome occurs in about 25% to 52% of men in the United States who have pregnant partners. Though Couvade syndrome appears fairly common, studies on the condition to date have focused on the male partners of women who are pregnant. Very little research has looked at Couvade syndrome in LGBTQ+ couples.

Men all over the world experience Couvade syndrome.While it’s possible to experience severe symptoms, many have only a few mild symptoms. Since symptoms disappear after childbirth in nearly all cases, this condition could go mostly unnoticed. But some men may feel confused, concerned, or otherwise distressed about their symptoms. Health care professionals have found it can help to briefly explain the condition to men who experience distress and let them know Couvade syndrome isn’t unusual. It may also be reassuring to know Couvade syndrome is often described as a reaction to the changes pregnancy and parenthood bring, not a sign of a mental health issue or other concern.

Can Couvade Syndrome Be Treated?

Because symptoms resolve on their own and don’t generally pose a threat or cause harm, there’s no specific treatment recommended for men who have Couvade syndrome. However, there are several strategies that can help ease symptoms.

Some men find meditation, yoga, and similar approaches help them feel more relaxed. Therapy may help people who experience depression or anxiety symptoms as part of Couvade syndrome. It can also treat preexisting diagnoses which have been exacerbated by stress.

Medication, including herbal remedies, can help treat physical symptoms like nausea or pain. Some men might experience sympathy labor pains, which medication can also help with.

Remember that you aren’t alone. If you’re struggling with your feelings about parenthood, or experiencing symptoms you don’t understand, a trained therapist can help you work through them. Reach out today!

References:

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. 327.
  2. Brennan, A., Ayers, S., Ahmed, H., & Marshall-Lucette, S. (2007). A critical review of the Couvade syndrome: The pregnant male. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 25(3), 173-189. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-11728-002
  3. Devi, A. M., & Chanu, M. P. (2015). Couvade syndrome. International Journal of Nursing Education and Research, 3(3). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Akoijam_Devi2/publication/286313694_7_IJNER_165_–28-05-2015DE/links/5667b26c08aea62726ee986a/7-IJNER-165–28-05-2015DE.pdf
  4. Hall-Flavin, D. K. (2016, August 25). What can you tell me about couvade? Can men really experience sympathetic pregnancy symptoms? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/couvade-syndrome/faq-20058047
  5. Ibekwe, P. C., & Achor, J. U. (2008). Psychosocial and cultural aspects of pseudocyesis. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738334
  6. Klein, H. (1991). Couvade syndrome: Male counterpart to pregnancy. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 21(1), 57-69. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2066258
  7. Piechowski-Jozwiak, B., & Bogousslavsky, J. (2018). Couvade syndrome – custom, behavior, or disease? Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience, 42(1), 51-58. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29151091
  8. Tarín, J. J., Hermenegildo, C., García-Pérez, M. A., & Cano, A. (2013). Endocrinology and physiology of pseudocyesis. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 11(39). Retrieved from https://rbej.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1477-7827-11-39

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