Couvade Syndrome Or Sympathetic Pregnancy - Everything You Need To Know

Couvade Syndrome Or Sympathetic Pregnancy

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Remember the 1994 movie ‘Junior,’ where Arnold Schwarzenegger, acting as a research scientist, becomes pregnant and even goes as far as delivering the baby through a C-section? Despite what the movie portrayed, pregnancy is solely a female thing. However, there are instances of men (expecting fathers) displaying symptoms of pregnancy! Yes, the condition also has a name, Couvade Syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy. Sympathetic pregnancy is not considered a medical ailment or problem and is often overlooked and left untreated by doctors.

Phantom Pregnancy In Men:

The scientific community calls this condition Couvade Syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy. While research into this syndrome is fairly recent, it has still managed to reveal quite a lot of information about why some men develop pregnancy symptoms similar to their wives and partners. Several findings have been inconclusive or have been proven wrong with other studies, and the research is still going on to know more about the exact cause of the syndrome.

Typically, when a woman gets pregnant, men are pushed to the periphery during pregnancy. After all, it is the woman who carries the baby for nine months and goes through labor and subsequent childbirth. There is no place for a man under these circumstances, is there? During pregnancy, men are ready to help satiate the cravings of a pregnant woman, and this is as far as most go to express their sympathy for their spouses and partners [1]. Or, is it? Men who experience Couvade Syndrome might disagree with the claim that there is more to it than fulfilling food cravings or giving your spouse a back rub.

The dynamics of a family change with the birth of a child. Even the relationship between man and woman undergoes a profound change. Things no longer stay the same with the entry of a child and whether the man likes it or not, it is bound to happen.

Today, many expectant fathers are extremely committed not just during the pregnancy, but also after childbirth. They willingly participate in antenatal classes and thus, have become more aware of their impending fatherhood. In extreme cases, such men risk developing Couvade Syndrome. Some men don’t or can’t just stop at fulfilling their pregnant wives’ cravings. They go a step forward and start displaying symptoms of pregnancy similar to their wives. These symptoms have no physiological basis and it is why researchers believe sympathetic pregnancy is more psychosomatic in nature [2].

Symptoms usually manifest in the first trimester of pregnancy, disappear in the second trimester and reappear in the third trimester [3]. The symptoms of Couvade Syndrome are completely similar to the ones that women experience when they are pregnant and typically include:

  • Indigestion
  • Weight gain
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Toothache
  • Nausea [4]
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Mood swings
  • Stomach cramps
  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

Some men, albeit in rare cases, may experience the symptoms throughout the pregnancy, and the moment the birth occurs, these symptoms miraculously disappear. There are also instances of men developing a swollen abdomen that looks eerily similar to a baby bump.

The Research Behind Sympathetic Pregnancy:

  • In 2007, a study under the aegis of St. George’s University, London, England, was conducted at St. George’s Hospital in London. It was one of the first researches of its kind aimed at sympathetic pregnancy. The study finally accepted that there existed a phenomenon or condition called sympathetic pregnancy, and many males experience it when their partners or spouses become pregnant.
  • The study was conducted on 282 men between the ages of 19 and 55, who had pregnant wives. There was a control group of 281 men, with wives who were not pregnant. Researchers found most men with pregnant wives had symptoms of pregnancy, including morning sickness and mood swings [5].
  • Researchers found the most common symptom among the men was stomach cramps. However, one participant also suffered from labor pains while his wife was in labor. Some of the men with sympathetic pregnancy developed a swollen abdomen, mimicking their pregnant wives. In medical terms, the condition is called pseudocyesis [6].
  • Couvade Syndrome in these test subjects typically followed the same pattern as their wives’ pregnancies. The symptoms usually appeared in the early part of the first trimester and reached a zenith in the third trimester. The symptoms cleared up once the wives delivered. Since doctors could not find a reason for the appearance of symptoms, they believe Couvade Syndrome is more psychosomatic rather than physiological.
  • After this groundbreaking research, many other researchers took it upon themselves to delve into sympathetic pregnancy and find out what causes some men to experience it and not others. However, until today, scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact reason for Couvade Syndrome but know it has existed as a ritual since time immemorial.

Ritualistic Couvade In Ancient Times:

While the scientific and medical fraternity is still trying to determine why some men experience sympathetic pregnancy, there ritualistic Couvade has been around from 50 century BC. It was prevalent in Iberia and Corsica, Spain.

Ritualistic Couvade was a socially acceptable custom in many societies in ancient times where the expecting father would take to bed and behave as though he were going through the throes of labor, refrain from eating certain foods that pregnant women are not allowed to eat and even caring for the newborn infant just like the mother would.

Scientifically, this ritual was described in the 18th century when anthropologists were studying customs of men who would copy labor experience of their wives while going through childbirth. Anthropologists found different reasons for this ritual that was rather widespread. These reasons have been collected by speaking to people and through observations.

  • Protecting the mother and newborn infant from evil spirits
  • Strengthening the bond between the new father and infant
  • Asserting paternity socially
  • Diverting the newborn child’s attention from the mother, thereby preventing the relationship from turning incestuous
  • Helping the father take a more active role in the pregnancy, thus diminishing the act of impregnating the wife nine months ago
  • Sustaining a belief that the father possesses supernatural powers, and this allows him to guide and protect the child

Although the reasons may vary, Couvade as a ritual was observed in many societies, including Native Americans, Carib people, Indians, French, Chinese and Papuans (New Guinea). The ritual is still present in contemporary times and is seen among the Japanese Ainus community and Witotos in South America.

The fact that Couvade ritual is present even today, it is an indication there is more to it than just empathizing with the woman during the nine months of her pregnancy. In societies where the ritual is practiced, the man is not considered less of a man or looked down upon for undergoing or even exhibiting the symptoms of Couvade syndrome. It is a socially acceptable behavior that is even praised and applauded by others in the society. Isn’t that just incredible?

Couvade Syndrome In Modern Times:

Some researchers believe Couvade Syndrome is another form of ritualistic Couvade. Rather than copying the symptoms of the pregnant wives, here men suffer or mimic the symptoms of their spouses. While the ritual was more about the relationship between the father and child, Couvade Syndrome appears to be more of a feeling of empathy with the expecting wife than the father-child relationship. However, since it is a psychosomatic connection, it is tough to verify that phantom pregnancy, which men experience is about father-child relationship or man-woman relationship. Maybe it is a little bit of both, or maybe it is as mooted. But, men who develop Couvade Syndrome do, in fact, suffer the same symptoms as their wives or partners.

Furthermore, researchers claim the phenomenon of sympathetic pregnancy is more prevalent in industrialized and developed nations rather than non-industrialized and developing nations.

Even though the study by St. George’s University gave credence to the existence of Couvade Syndrome, it is not considered a medical condition. Researchers prefer to term it as the body reacting to an emotionally charged up state of mind, more of an upheaval. However, finding that elusive link between the mind and body has not been a major success.

Researchers agree psychosomatic conditions tend to manifest themselves in varied ways. Noted psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Martin Charcot, both agreed that the mind has a profound effect on the health of an individual [7]. So, the mind affects the body, as seen in men suffering from sympathetic pregnancy.

Causes Of Couvade Syndrome:

It is important to realize that impending fatherhood for the first time can lead to anxiety. It is probably why sympathetic pregnancy is more common among teenage fathers or men who are unprepared for fatherhood. The anxiety of becoming a father can evoke a range of psychosomatic responses in the body.

While researchers are still struggling to determine the reason for the condition, certain probable causes (theories) have emerged from studies conducted on Couvade Syndrome. The Syndrome usually is seen in men, who have a strong bond and connection (physically and mentally) with their spouses and partners.

  • Envying the female for her ability to give birth
  • Unresolved Oedipus complex [8]
  • Viewing the growing fetus as a rival and hence, competing for the spouse’s attention
  • Masked hostility towards the baby
  • Showing a need for dependence when unconsciously the man yearns for more autonomy
  • Being unprepared for fatherhood, as is the case with teenage fathers
  • Gender and sexuality issues

Couvade Syndrome is more prevalent among men with less formal education than those with higher levels of education. However, the jury is out on this finding, as other research shows the education and ethnicity of the father have no bearing on the appearance of sympathetic pregnancy. But, age tends to have a bearing. If the expectant father is young, he has a higher chance of experiencing sympathetic pregnancy. Sigmund Freud believed displaying the symptoms of Couvade was a way for the expecting father to lay to rests any doubts about the child’s paternity.

There are also some studies that focus on hormonal changes occurring in expecting fathers. In a study conducted on rodents and nonhuman primates, some evidence has emerged that prolactin levels increase in the male species when the females are pregnant. The evidence points to the fact that there is some hormonal connection to men demonstrating pregnancy symptoms similar to their spouses. In one study on expecting fathers, it was found the levels of testosterone were low while their spouses were pregnant and then the levels increased after the spouses gave birth to the child. In the same study, researchers found that the men had high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) during pregnancy and childbirth, but the levels significantly reduced after childbirth. The findings conclude that pregnancy is a stressful time for both the woman and the man.

Symptoms Of Couvade Syndrome:

The symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy are extremely varied, but can be categorized as physical and psychological symptoms. Usually, a man has to experience two or more symptoms to conclude that he suffers from the Syndrome.

Physical symptoms of the condition include:

  • Nausea
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Respiratory problems
  • Leg cramps
  • Urinary irritations
  • Backache

The psychological symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Depression
  • Low libido
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings

Tips To Handle Couvade Syndrome:

It goes without saying having a baby is a life-altering experience, which has a profound effect on the expectant father’s life as much as his spouse or partner. However, most expecting fathers are not given an opportunity to vent or express their anxiety or their feelings about the pregnancy or fatherhood. Furthermore, when men develop similar symptoms as their expecting wives or partners, they feel embarrassed and may feel they are the only one experiencing the symptoms. The embarrassment prevents them from discussing their symptoms with their spouses or partners and healthcare professional.

As the condition is not considered a medical one, there is no real treatment listed to help men suffering from the Syndrome. However, the best way to handle sympathetic pregnancy is by educating men and making them aware of the condition. Here are some other tips that could help you handle Couvade syndrome in men:

1. Awareness:

Expecting fathers need to know about the possibility of developing the condition so that they don’t feel too embarrassed or indeed confused about what is happening to them. Educating expectant father is one of the most effective ways to tackle the symptoms of Couvade Syndrome.

2. Stress and Anxiety Relief:

Since fatherhood can evoke profound feelings and sometimes the man may feel inadequate as a father, it could lead to unfounded stress, thereby causing a manifestation of the symptoms. Expecting fathers should be encouraged to take up yoga, breathing exercises and meditation to alleviate the stress and anxiety [9].

3. Being Physically Active:

Men experiencing Couvade Syndrome are typically under stress and anxious. Performing a 30-minute exercise routine can help uplift mood and also combat stress. Being physically active makes one feel good and optimistic about life and the impending fatherhood.

4. Structured Counseling And Psychotherapy:

Some of the reasons for Couvade Syndrome relate to unresolved emotional issues, and it is advisable to seek professional help if your partner exhibits two or more symptoms of Couvade Syndrome. Speaking to a mental health care professional can go a long way in resolving emotional conflicts that the man may be experiencing. Also, a qualified mental health care professional can decide whether to use medications to alleviate some of the overwhelming symptoms.

5. Participating in Antenatal Classes:

A good way to prevent or combat sympathetic pregnancy is by accompanying the expecting mother for antenatal classes. Opting for these classes helps a man understand his role during pregnancy and childbirth and realizes that his role is to support the woman and focus on her needs and not his.

6. Communicating:

The start of a pregnancy is an uncertain time in both the man’s and woman’s lives. Hence, if the two speak about their feelings and expectations, it can become easier for the man to understand his position during the pregnancy. This also is the time to talk about and, if your doctor gives you the go-ahead, even indulge in sex. Don’t believe the common myth that sexual intercourse during pregnancy can hurt or injure the fetus.

When a man has the knowledge and awareness of the syndrome, he is better equipped to handle it even though there is no way of getting rid of it. The knowledge provides comfort and solace to the man, knowing that he is not the only person experiencing these alien symptoms, and there are others who experience them as well.

The doctor should make an effort also to monitor the expectant father’s health and ask routine questions about the emotional and physical health of the expecting father during the pregnancy and right after parturition. It helps the healthcare provider truly offer family-centered maternity care.

The Burden Of Fatherhood:

  • Men, who are unprepared for fatherhood, may feel obligated to offer support to their spouses and partners during their pregnancy and subsequent labor. The fact that he is going to become a father evokes numerous reactions, and one of them could be experiencing sympathetic pregnancy.
  • A few decades ago; men were not involved in the entire pregnancy and labor as they were considered “women’s” issues. However, that has changed over the years with men expressing a desire to be wholly involved in the entire process. One of the ways some men expressed they engagement was developing Couvade Syndrome. It is considered as their deep sense of commitment and emotional engagement to the pregnancy as well as childbirth. Such fathers often turn into active partners and are worried about the needs of their spouses or partners.
  • At the same time, the fathers who are actively engaged in pregnancy and labor are worried about their psychology and may not worry or focus on the mothers’ feelings and emotions. This causes them to act in an egocentric manner rather than being sympathetic and empathetic. This is known as the negative side of sympathetic pregnancy.
  • Some experts reckon the process of experiencing Couvade Syndrome is a way for an expecting father to create a new identity for himself. This new identity is that of a father. Hence, until this identity is defined, the man will experience the symptoms. Usually, this identity takes a concrete form after the child is born. Hence, this is the reason the symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy disappear after the birth of the child.

A Final Word:

  • It is possible that Couvade Syndrom could be just another form of ritualistic Couvade. It could be a rite of passage so that the man can embrace fatherhood wholeheartedly and become the pillar of support he is expected to be after childbirth. Expecting a child and experiencing childbirth are two of the most important experiences the couple has together.
  • However, in modern times, where institutionalized childbirths are the norm, it is not possible for the man and woman to share the experience together. Men may be present throughout the pregnancy and also accompany women for labor and childbirth, but after that a sense of isolation creeps in as the men feel alienated from the mother and child.
  • A research conducted in Sweden way back in 1974 states that it makes sense for men to experience sympathetic pregnancy since it facilitates a positive influence in the way a father takes care of the newborn infant. The experience makes the father confident of his ability to make fatherhood an integral part of his life and devote attention to the child. It is quite possible this Syndrome experienced by fathers during pregnancy is a way of defining the father’s role in caring and upbringing of a child in a more complete and comprehensive manner.

What are your views on Couvade Syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy? Did you or your spouse experience the Syndrome? Do you relate to what the researchers have to say? We would love to hear from you. Leave your comment in the box below.

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