Sympathetic pregnancy: Are you pregnant?

Your wife is pregnant. You’re expecting your first child. You’re both so happy. Nervous too, but mostly happy. So… Why is your belly growing?

Men's Health

Sonia Chartier

15 May 2017

Sympathetic pregnancy, also known as Couvade syndrome (from the French word “couver,” meaning “to brood”) is a real phenomenon, though not one that’s recognized as a medical or psychological condition.

Sympathetic pregnancy is not just about your belly getting big. When a woman is pregnant, her body goes through a whole array of physical and psychological upheavals, which men can experience too. Physical symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Leg cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Hormonal changes
  • Pain related to contractions

Then there are the psychological symptoms:

  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Feelings of jealousy and anxiety
  • Food cravings
  • Stress related to the baby
  • And in some cases, postpartum depression

The most remarkable ones are the hormonal changes: in some men, cortisol and prolactin levels increase—prolactin is the hormone that stimulates milk production.

Sympathetic pregnancy – Stats

Given that men rarely consult their doctors about it, the brooding phenomenon hasn’t been properly quantified. However, according to statistics, 10% of future dads in some countries appear to experience it, whereas the number is as high as 85% in other countries. Some indigenous peoples in Mexico even have a ritual to rid themselves of the symptoms. A group of men take the future dad aside, make him wear his wife’s skirts, and rock him while he acts like a baby. It all ends with a dinner after which the symptoms go away.

Sympathetic pregnancy –  The phenomenon

While it’s very real and regularly observed, sympathetic pregnancy is psychosomatic in nature and vanishes as soon as the baby is born. There are two theories to explain the phenomenon. The first is that the brooding stems from jealousy about the attention the mother gets and the relationship between the mother and baby. The second is that the symptoms attest to the intensity of the father’s commitment to his new role.

The arrival of a new baby brings mixed feelings of happiness, anxiety and stress. The recommended solution is to take measures to manage that stress and attend prenatal classes to become better prepared. It is also recommended that you talk with your wife to get her to share her pregnancy with you as much as possible and to discuss your mutual hopes and fears about being new parents.

In the event that the symptoms become overwhelming, consulting a psychologist can help. The treatment recommended by all the experts remains improved communication between the parents so that the father can play an active and vital role in the process. Prenatal classes and participating in the delivery are considered primordial steps.

Sympathetic pregnancy might be your chance to get an insider’s perspective on the hormonal swings that the women around you experience all the time. And it’s a good way to better understand them when PMS strikes.