Why Do Some Men Develop ‘Sympathy’ Pregnancies?

A pregnant couple look at their baby's ultrasound picMen who gain weight during a partner’s pregnancy are often the butt of jokes, derided for using their partner’s pregnancy as an “excuse” to gain weight. For some men, though, the symptoms of pregnancy include a growing stomach, tender breasts, cravings, and even morning sickness. Couvade syndrome, while not formally recognized as a medical condition, occurs when men’s “sympathy” symptoms of pregnancy interfere with daily life. Researchers are increasingly interested in the psychological and physiological mechanisms behind this condition, but it’s still not well understood. In a recent piece for The Washington Post, Arthur Brennan, a senior psychology lecturer at St. George’s, University of London, aims to untangle the mysteries of Couvade.

Understanding Couvade Syndrome

Men who have Couvade do more than just gain a few pounds during their partners’ pregnancies. Brennan reports that some men’s symptoms are so serious they have to take time off of work. In addition to experiencing physical pregnancy symptoms, these men may also experience prenatal depression, mood swings, and memory loss. In a study at St. George’s Hospital, Brennan and his research team confirmed that these symptoms were real—not just manufactured symptoms designed to gain attention or a few days off of work.

Nevertheless, Couvade remains a controversial condition. There are no blood tests for the condition and no agreed-upon diagnostic criteria. Doctors don’t typically diagnose Couvade as a cause for pregnancy symptoms in men; instead, they investigate other potential causes, such as depression or physiological problems. 

What Causes Couvade Syndrome?

While Brennan’s study may have confirmed the legitimacy of some Couvade symptoms, researchers are still at a loss to explain the condition. Some research suggests cultural influences. Brennan reports that, in the United States, 25% to 52% of expectant fathers experience some symptoms of Couvade, but only 20% of Swedish men experience the condition. Researchers estimate an incidence as high as 61% in Thailand. Researchers have proposed a number of potential explanations, including:

  • Attachment theory: Some attachment theorists argue that men who identify strongly with their wives or with the developing fetus are more likely to develop symptoms.
  • Hormonal changes: Two studies have found that men who experience Couvade also experience hormonal changes, though researchers aren’t sure why. Environmental factors, including stress, can alter hormones, so perhaps some men are more vulnerable to hormonal changes when their partners get pregnant.
  • Stress: Some theorists argue that becoming a father is inherently stressful and frightening. In some men, this stress manifests in the form of physiological symptoms.
  • Psychosocial theories: It’s obvious enough that men can’t give birth, but some men may feel relegated to a secondary role by their inability to birth a child. Couvade may be an unconscious way for these men to experience pregnancy and childbirth.

While we don’t yet know what causes Couvade syndrome, research increasingly points to the legitimacy of the condition, with most researchers arguing that men with Couvade aren’t faking it.

References:

  1. Brennan, A. (2014, September 26). Why some men develop signs of pregnancy. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/09/26/why-some-men-develop-signs-of-pregnancy/
  2. Couvade syndrome: Is sympathetic pregnancy real? (2014, January 15). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/couvade-syndrome/faq-20058047

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  • Glynnis

    Glynnis

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    Woohoo now these are the good husbands! I don’t see anything wrong with finding a little sympathy for what your wife is going through while she is pregnant, and as a matter of fact experiencing this while not pleasant for the guys probably makes them a whole lot more in tune with their wife’s feelings and they ill be much more prone to being patient and kind to her throughout the pregnancy. I know that millions before me have experienced pregnancy and it is nothing unique, but you have to admit that it is kind of special to eb able to share your feelings with your husband in this way, and I am a believer that a man who feels this right along with you will just have to be a good dad becasue they know all about the good and bad feelings that brought the baby into this world.

  • Jade

    Jade

    October 2nd, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    It would seem a little more legit if there was an actual test that could identify it wouldn’t it?

  • Ernest

    Ernest

    October 3rd, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    C’mon guys admit it!
    It’s all for the ice cream right ? ;)
    I am just kidding, I know a lot of men who have these sympathy pregnancies right along with their wives and what they describe really sounds like the same thing that the women are going through.
    I never experienced that myself, but hey there are a lot of things that I haven’t experienced myself but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in them.

  • Berry

    Berry

    October 4th, 2014 at 6:14 AM

    very odd- I have never before heard of this

  • robbie

    robbie

    October 8th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    I would never want to diminish anyone who is experiencing sickness and pain but has it ever been lookes at that the men going through this could have something that causes them to need attention and therefore they develop them symptoms of pregnancy because they are missing out on some of that attention now? I know that there is something like this in moms (Munchausen or something like that) so could this bear any similarities to that?

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