Believe it or not, though only women become pregnant, both men and women can experience symptoms of pregnancy. Couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy, describes when a man begins to experience pregnancy symptoms alongside his pregnant partner. While it isn’t necessarily considered a health condition in the medical community, it is an interesting phenomenon that many men experience when their partners are pregnant. In this blog, we will dive into the concept of sympathetic pregnancy, and how you may address the symptoms if you are experiencing them yourself.
The term “couvade syndrome” was not coined by a doctor; in actuality, it was anthropologist E.B. Tyler. Tyler observed that in several cultures, men acted out ritual pregnancies when their partners were pregnant. The term “couvade” comes from the French verb “couver,” which means “to incubate.” While these rituals were intentional, the term has come to refer to involuntary physical and mental symptoms of pregnancy manifesting in men. Though it isn’t considered a disease, there have been many studies conducted to find out more about couvade syndrome and what causes it.
Couvade syndrome has both physical and mental symptoms. Common symptoms of couvade syndrome include:
- Abdominal pain
- Leg cramps
- Mood swings
- Food cravings
Studies have found the phenomenon of sympathetic pregnancy in males across cultures, particularly in developed countries. Research indicates that couvade syndrome (ranging from very mild to very severe symptoms) may affect between 25 and 50 percent of men with pregnant partners in the US, 20 percent in Sweden, and 61 percent in Thailand.
The exact cause of couvade syndrome is unknown, but there are several psychological theories.
In the world of psychoanalysis, the theory is that couvade syndrome originates from men’s envy of women’s ability to procreate. Additionally, the pregnancy brings up oedipal conflicts within the man, causing him to regress to feelings of rejection and anxiety from childhood. These feelings cause the man to subconsciously view the growing fetus as a threat to his relationship with the mother, and these symptoms manifest as a way to help a man feel closer to his partner and more protective of the baby.
In psychosocial theory, the focus is on the social circumstances in which a person lives. The theory there is that men are marginalized and cast aside during pregnancy. While motherhood is emphasized as one of the most important things a woman can do, there is not the same reverence for fatherhood. Because of this, the father feels left out, and in order to feel more included in the gestation of his baby, the father inadvertently manifests these symptoms.
Paternal transitional theory
Particularly for a first child, pregnancy can be a very stressful time for both the mother and the father of the child. One theory, called paternal transitional theory, suggests that becoming a father is such a stressful experience of change that the body must respond biologically to make sense of it. While a woman experiences physical changes in her body that show her transition to motherhood, men do not have the same experience with fatherhood, and therefore, his body manifests pregnancy symptoms to contend with the feelings of jealousy, anxiety, and uncertainty.
In contrast, attachment theory suggests that a man experiences these symptoms not because of how distant he feels from the pregnancy, but how close he feels to the fetus. This makes sense, as men who have taken pre-natal classes are more likely to experience couvade syndrome. One study in the ‘80s found that there was somewhat of a correlation between involvement with their unborn child and development of couvade symptoms. Men who felt the baby kicking, went to ultrasound appointments, and attended prenatal classes were more likely to experience symptoms like fatigue, sleep trouble, indigestion, and constipation.
While there hasn’t been enough research done yet, there may be a connection between couvade syndrome and hormones. There have been two studies done on the influence of hormones on couvade syndrome, and both indicate hormonal changes in men during their partner’s pregnancy. The findings saw an increase in prolactin and estrogen in male partners during the first and third trimesters as well as lower testosterone and cortisol levels. These changes correlated with the symptoms of couvade syndrome.
Fortunately, symptoms of couvade syndrome will go away at the end of the pregnancy naturally. However, there may be ways to ease them during the course of your partner’s pregnancy. Talking to your partner about your fears and anxieties about having children may help, as well as being involved in the pregnancy. In more severe cases, you may benefit from counseling. Regardless, it is important to take steps to manage stress. If you need help with stress management, our men’s health clinic may be able to help. Contact Men’s Vitality Center in Tucson today to learn more.