Do men experience ‘sympathetic pregnancy’?

It’s natural to sympathize with someone’s pain, but to what extent can that happen when dealing with a pregnancy? According to experts, some men experience…

Some husbands suffer from Couvade Syndrome when their wives are pregnant. (Shutterstock)

It’s natural to sympathize with someone’s pain, but to what extent can that happen when dealing with a pregnancy? According to experts, some men experience pregnancy symptoms along with their partners, and it all has to do with a complex mixture of hormones and psychological transition.

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Sympathetic pregnancy in men, formally known as Couvade syndrome, is defined as a situation in which an otherwise healthy male–with a partner expecting a baby–finds himself experiencing symptoms of pregnancy. These symptoms can vary, but often include nausea, heartburn, bloating, body aches, anxiety, depression, restlessness, and genital irritation.

Despite how common sympathetic pregnancy in men appears to be, it is not considered a medical diagnosis. The Mayo Clinic explains more research is needed to determine if Couvade syndrome is a physical condition brought on by psychological duress and just how much of it may be attributed to actual hormonal changes in a man’s body.

The theories behind Couvade syndrome

Because there is no known physical reason for men to experience a sympathetic pregnancy, most experts feel the changes associated with Couvade syndrome are a result of psychological stress. Becoming a new dad can be one of the most exciting but stressful times in a man’s life, and that responsibility, coupled with relationship stresses, can cause a man’s body to go into overdrive.

An example of how pregnancy stress affects a man can be seen in cases where fathers-to-be indicate they suddenly feel marginalized as a new parent.

Mothers seemingly take on all the workload during pregnancy and all the focus shifts to them. This can leave men feeling useless and left out, and a report from The Conversation explains Couvade syndrome can be a subconscious way a man shifts attention back to himself. This is sometimes referred to as a way for men to deal with feelings of jealousy; perhaps the man’s partner is focusing only on the baby and not on the male-female relationship dynamic. Manifesting pregnancy symptoms can put the female partner back into a traditional role of caretaker for the male.

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Another psychological theory of sympathetic pregnancy has to do with how closely a man feels toward the fetus as it develops. Men in a less traditional role of primary parent–a man who will be a stay-at-home dad where the mother goes back to work–may also find themselves experiencing sympathetic pregnancy symptoms. Men who feel this level of responsibility, as well as men who are actively involved in pregnancy care, are more likely than other fathers to report Couvade syndrome.

Do hormones have anything to do with sympathetic pregnancy?

While much of Couvade syndrome appears to be psychological, some studies suggest there is a hormonal link. During the first and third trimesters, when sympathetic pregnancy is most likely to be reported, men with the condition show a significant increase in men’s levels of the hormones of prolactin and oestrogen , but lower levels of testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. These hormonal changes, however, coincided with the symptoms of Couvade syndrome, making experts wonder if the psychological changes brought on the hormonal ones or vice versa.

While there is evidence to show hormones do fluctuate in a sympathetic pregnancy, researchers indicate more studies need to be done before any cause and effect relationship can be established.