Pregnancy is most often thought to be an experience that only a woman can appreciate. After all, it is mom-to-be who gets to feel her belly bulge, muddle through morning sickness and undergo an excess of emotions. But somewhere between all of these experiences are the symptoms a woman’s partner may feel. It’s a condition known as sympathetic pregnancy, or couvade syndrome (from the French word couvee, meaning “to hatch”).
Sympathetic pregnancy is considered to be a situation in which an otherwise healthy man whose partner is expecting a baby experiences pregnancy-related symptoms ? the most common being appetite changes, nausea and anxiety.
“Although little research has been done on the subject, some studies suggest men who are highly involved in their partner’s pregnancy or in preparing for the birth of their child are more likely to suffer symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy,” explains Catherine Olsen, D.O., obstetrician/gynecologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Rockwall and Texas Health Women’s Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Symptoms tend to appear at about the same time the woman may be suffering through morning sickness beginning in her first trimester.”
Unfortunately, some men have reported lingering symptoms into the third trimester of their partner’s pregnancy. As the woman experiences weight gain, so too may the man. About half of all expectant dads gain an average of 14 pounds during their partner’s pregnancy.
Overall symptoms can be both physical in nature and psychological and include:
- Physical symptoms: nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, appetite changes, respiratory problems, toothaches, leg cramps, backaches, and urinary or genital irritations
- Psychological symptoms: changes in sleeping patterns, anxiety, depression, reduced libido and restlessness
Sympathetic pregnancy aside, men also experience other hormonal changes toward the end of their partner’s pregnancy and once their child is born. One is a rise in the hormone prolactin, best known for its role in triggering breastfeeding in women. Research out of Bar-Ilan University in Israel also found that levels of the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin rise in men once they become dads, or even when they play with their young infants. On the other end of the spectrum is a drop in testosterone levels.
Whether sympathetic pregnancy is real or not-so-real, there does seem to be some hormonal effect on men with pregnant partners. “This is likely either a reaction to the elevated hormonal levels of their partners, the evolution of preparing to bond with their children, or both,” Olsen says. “More research needs to be done, but it looks like women aren’t the only ones who can say their hormones go crazy during pregnancy.”
What else is certain is that becoming a new parent can be exciting, emotional and stressful all at the same time. Olsen suggests men take steps to manage stress and prepare for parenthood along with their partners. “Attend prenatal classes, and seek out advice and encouragement from friends and family. Understanding and planning for the challenges ahead can help ease the transition into parenthood.”
“The only known cure for sympathetic pregnancy and hormonal changes may be the birth of the baby, but what a great resolution for a couple to have,” she adds.