Sympathetic Pregnancy – What Is It? Why Does It Happen? Is It Even Real?

The idea of sympathetic pregnancy is somewhat of a taboo subject, but is one I will be delving into!

Sympathetic pregnancy (also known as couvade syndrome) describes a situation in which otherwise healthy men, whose partners are expecting babies, experience pregnancy-related symptoms. While some research suggests that couvade might be common, it isn’t a recognized mental illness or disease. Symptoms reported being associated with couvade syndrome vary and typically occur only during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy. Physical symptoms might include nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, appetite changes, respiratory problems, toothaches, leg cramps, backaches, and urinary or genital irritations. Psychological symptoms include changes in sleeping patterns, anxiety, depression, reduced libido, and restlessness. Expectant dads can also experience pregnancy symptoms. Couvade syndrome, also known as “sympathetic pregnancy,” affects an estimated 80 to 90 percent of expectant dads.

The name “Couvade syndrome” is derived from the French word “couver,” which means “to hatch.” The condition has become more common in the past 30 years as fathers have taken a more prominent role in pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Fathers who experience sympathetic pregnancy have many of the same physical and emotional symptoms as their pregnant counterparts.

If you’re dealing with couvade syndrome in your home, there are two likely catalysts: stress and empathy. Stress releases chemicals in the body that can manifest as sympathetic pregnancy. With financial worries, health concerns, and good old-fashioned cold feet, pregnancy is often stressful for both partners. Add a little empathy to the mix, and you have a perfect recipe for couvade. Although men may not talk about it much, these symptoms are not uncommon. Couples who have dealt with infertility or pregnancy loss, for example, are particularly susceptible.

Fortunately, couvade is almost always temporary and not serious. A few people, on the other hand, come down with extreme couvade – and have more than a little fatigue or mild swelling to show for it. In rare cases, expectant dads have reported breast growth, vomiting and experiencing cramping or abdominal pain as their wife or partner went into labor. In addition to uncomfortable symptoms, these sufferers experience actual changes in their hormone levels. San Diego ob-gyn Norman Duerbeck, suggests we can look to the mind-body connection for answers.

Stress can lower testosterone levels in men, leaving them with out-of-balance estrogen levels, creating pregnancy-like symptoms. In addition, men with extreme couvade often have too much cortisol – a stress-related chemical that, while effective in the face of short-term dangers, is troublesome over time. “Too much cortisol on a long-term basis can result in increased prolactin, which can lead to physical symptoms like breast enlargement,” says Duerbeck. In these severe cases, mental health treatment to reduce anxiety can help.

Unfortunately, there is no medication to alleviate the symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy. Things that can help your husband or partner are many of the things that your doctor has probably recommended for you: eating healthy, getting exercise, and practicing stress-relief techniques before going to sleep at night. You can help your husband or partner by trying these activities together. Work together to make a healthy dinner at night or go on evening walks together. These activities can not only alleviate his symptoms but can help the two of you bond while you prepare to meet your new little one. Bonding can make him feel more secure of his role as your husband or partner and of his new role as a father. If your husband or partner is experiencing extreme sympathetic pregnancy symptoms, however, it’s a good idea for him to talk with a doctor or mental health professional to determine how to best help him.

The next time your partner complains about his nausea or swollen ankles, plan a relaxing nigh in for the two of you to recuperate together. Your partner’s symptoms are springing up from the concern he has for you and your new little one and maybe (just a little) need for some extra attention. Go ahead and give him a little extra sympathy for what he is experiencing and know that relief is coming for both of your symptoms in the form of a brand-new baby. While you’re doing your own research about what to expect, it may be beneficial for your partner to do some studying up of their own.

Shoshi W.
Shoshi is an undergraduate student at Stern College for Women in New York City. Her areas of interest include policy, non-profit organizations, and administration. During winter 2018, she was a White House intern. Shoshi has also interned at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and at Save the Children in New York. As a millennial, Shoshi brings a young and fresh perspective to the worlds of pregnancy and lactation.

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