What Is Sympathetic Pregnancy? Can Your Partner Really Share Your Symptoms?
Have you heard of a man sharing his partner’s pregnancy symptoms? Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself.
The phenomenon known as “sympathetic pregnancy” is commonly experienced, but why does it happen? Is it real or an attempt for attention?
In this post, we’ll discuss what sympathetic pregnancy is, what the symptoms are, and why it may happen. Finally, we’ll cover what your partner can do if they’re experiencing pregnancy-like symptoms.
What Is Couvade Syndrome?
Sympathetic pregnancy is also known as couvade syndrome. In case you’re wondering, the name for it comes from the French word “couver” which translates into “brood,” meaning to hatch.
The syndrome is marked by pregnancy symptoms experienced by someone who is not pregnant but who is close to someone expecting.
Couvade syndrome can affect a pregnant woman’s:
- Very close friends
- Very close relatives
When you hear the term “sympathetic pregnancy,” it’s mostly used in relation to a man experiencing similar symptoms to his pregnant partner. However, anyone who is very close to the pregnant woman can be affected. For example, a sister who you see frequently and share everything with may also start having strange symptoms.
In most cases, the symptoms of couvade syndrome are only temporary and not serious.
Surprisingly, sympathetic pregnancy is actually quite common. However, if the person isn’t aware that the syndrome exists, they may attribute their symptoms to something else or assume that they’re just sick.
The symptoms appear most commonly in the third month of the other person’s pregnancy. They may reappear in the final weeks, closer to the birth.
What Are The Symptoms Of Couvade Syndrome?
Strangely enough, the symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy are very similar to those the pregnant woman will experience. These include both physical and psychological effects.
Most people who experience sympathetic pregnancy will only have minor symptoms:
- Gaining a few pounds alongside the mother
- Nausea (“morning sickness”)
- Back pain
- Reduced libido
Some people experience more extreme symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Testosterone level changes
The symptoms of couvade syndrome can vary from person to person. One may experience only one symptom while another may experience many.
Is Sympathetic Pregnancy Real?
As we describe below, couvade syndrome can have a variety of causes and there’s not one clear, definitive reason why people experience it.
Even though it’s not considered a formal medical condition, many people can attest to its existence. According to a 1986 study, 25-52% of U.S. fathers-to-be had experienced couvade syndrome.
A 2010 Australian survey found that 31% of men had been affected by it. The most commonly reported symptoms were tiredness, feeling anxious, and weight gain.
Researchers have also confirmed its existence.
A 2013 study examined expecting fathers in Poland and found that men who are emotionally sensitive or prone to distress may experience pregnancy alongside their partner. Researchers found that their symptoms were related to weight gain, appetite changes and flatulence.
One study of 70 couples concluded that both spouses experienced some physical and psychological pregnancy symptoms.
Interestingly, a study conducted in India concluded that health care providers should “anticipate needs and problems of expectant fathers and assist them in working through the challenging aspects of fatherhood.” The researchers found that the fathers-to-be experienced both physical and psychological conditions.
They observed physical symptoms such as:
- Weight changes
- Back pain
- Skin problems
Psychological symptoms they noted include:
- Mood swings
- Feeling close to tears, lonely, helpless or guilty
- Losing interest in activities
What Causes Couvade Syndrome?
Although studies have shown that sympathetic pregnancy exists, researchers don’t know exactly why. However, they have a few theories.
If your partner says he’s experiencing similar symptoms to you, you may be annoyed. After all, you’re the pregnant one going through everything, not him.
However, you may want to suspend your judgment and go easy on him. He may actually be experiencing those symptoms because he has empathy for what you’re going through. In fact, studies have shown there’s an association between male empathy and sympathetic pregnancy. This may be particularly true if you’ve had a difficult pregnancy so far.
Although it’s good your partner understands what you’re going through, it’s possible his sympathy could elevate his stress levels.
Whether his stress levels have risen because of empathy or because of other stressors—such as the fact that his life is changing, financial worries, etc.—the added anxiety could cause symptoms.
When trying to figure out the cause of sympathetic pregnancy, it’s important to explore the connection between mind and body. Stress is known to cause a variety of symptoms or health concerns, both physically and mentally. Basically, the more stress your partner has, the more likely he is to experience sympathetic pregnancy. If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss or fertility issues, that also increases his likelihood of experiencing it.
When you have anxiety, your body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone. Too much of this chemical can have negative effects that mimic pregnancy symptoms.
Another related cause could be changes in his hormonal levels. If his testosterone levels decrease, his estrogen levels could also be out of balance. When this happens, it could lead to some pregnancy-like symptoms. Some men can even have high levels of prolactin, which is the hormone used in milk production.
Some theorize that the syndrome can be caused by the person’s emotional attachment to the unborn child. In a study published in the 1980’s, researchers found that men who were involved and attached to the unborn baby were more likely to experience more physical symptoms.
Similarly, if a close friend or family member feels attached to your baby and expects to play a large role in their life, it may also be the cause of their symptoms.
Other people think that symptoms could be caused by pregnancy bringing up painful childhood memories. Some believe that symptoms are a manifestation of a man’s jealousy of a woman’s ability to get pregnant.
While it’s not possible for us to tell you what’s causing you or your partner’s sympathetic pregnancy, considering his stress levels may be a good start.
How To Treat Sympathetic Pregnancy Symptoms
Even though the symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy are not usually serious, they can be bothersome to deal with.
Your partner probably won’t need medical care, but he may want to consider ways he can manage his symptoms.
If he’s experiencing physical symptoms, he may consider ways to relieve that specific symptom. For example:
- Taking melatonin for insomnia
- Taking Tylenol for headaches
- Heating pads for back pain
- Over-the-counter digestive aids for specific digestive problems
However, getting to the root of the problem may be more effective.
If he’s experiencing high-stress levels—either because of your pregnancy or another situation in his life—he may want to consider finding ways to lower his stress levels.
Ways to lower his stress levels:
- Preparation— Some of his anxiety may come from feeling nervous and unprepared. Consider taking prenatal classes or reading an informative book.
- Talk to family and friends— Turning to his family and friends for advice or words of encouragement could help reduce anxiety.
- Talking to each other— Pregnancy can be a stressful time for both partners and being open about your feelings during this time can help.
- Talk with expecting dads— Hanging out with people who understand his situation may help. He should consider spending more time with any expecting dad friends, or he could meet some in a prenatal class. Alternatively, he can join an online forum community such as com’s Dad’s Corner.
- Other ways of destressing— Try taking up destressing activities with your partner. These can include meditation, yoga, exercise, couples massages, acupuncture, etc. Simply doing enjoyable things, like hanging out with his friends or going on a mini-vacation, could also help him unwind. For more tips, read our post 9 ways to reduce stress.
Since couvade syndrome is not medically recognized, it may be more difficult to talk to your family doctor about. However, getting other professional help, such as therapy, may be a good option. A qualified therapist can help your partner get to the root of the problem (empathy, stress, etc.) and give him coping strategies, in turn reducing pregnancy symptoms.
Adding to a person’s stress levels may be their weariness about discussing their symptoms. When a woman is pregnant and discusses her symptoms, people will generally understand. However, a man may be less likely to share his anxieties if he feels he will be judged. Both partners should try to form a strong support network during pregnancy so that they feel less alone during the journey.
Are you or your partner suffering from sympathetic pregnancy? If so, comment your experience below. If you know anyone who can relate to these symptoms, share this post with them, too!
P.S. Have you tried using a fetal heart monitor yet? These amazing at-home devices allow you to listen to your baby’s heartbeat while she’s still inside the womb. If you or your partner are constantly nervous about your baby’s health, a fetal doppler may help reassure you and reduce your anxiety.