OK so Hollywood does like to stretch reality somewhat, but we all know that despite what you might see in movies like Junior where geneticist Arnold Schwarzenegger accidentally impregnates himself, pregnancy is strictly for females. Don't let that fool you though – expectant fathers can have pregnancy symptoms too.
The 1994 comedy 'Junior' starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a geneticist who accidentally impregnates himself. (Photo: Junior)
Yes, it’s now well recognised that some men really do suffer pregnancy symptoms in sympathy with their partners.
Ranging from cramps, back pain, mood swings, food cravings, morning sickness, extreme tiredness, depression, irritability, fainting and toothache, up to 50% of fathers-to-be have been found to suffer from a mix of these ailments.
For many men, these symptoms fade over the first few months but some have been known to suffer from more extreme symptoms as their partner’s pregnancy develops. In extreme cases, there have even been reports of men developing develop swollen stomachs that look just like a "baby bump", according to the largest study of its kind in Britain, carried out by specialists at St George’s Hospital in London.
This condition is called Couvade Syndrome which comes from the French word “Couver” meaning “to hatch” and although most doctors and midwives will tell you they have experienced expectant fathers suffering from this condition there is no medical diagnosis for it.
However, Dr Arthur Brennan, who was the author of the study undertaken at St George’s Hospital says: "Some people may perceive this as men trying to get in on the act but far from being attention-seeking, these symptoms are involuntary”. In fact, Couvade has become more common in the past 30 years as fathers have taken a more prominent role in pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting.
It’s also worth noting that Couvade Syndrome is not exclusive to men – same-sex partners, family members and even close friends have been known to display the symptoms too!
Causes of Couvade Syndrome
Whilst the research at St George’s has identified the symptoms of Couvade Syndrome, little is known about the actual causes. It is commonly believed that there are two probable catalysts: stress and empathy.
San Diego obstetrician/gynaecologist Norman Duerbeck, suggests we can look to the mind-body connection for answers. Stress can lower testosterone levels in men, leaving them with out-of-balance estrogen levels, creating pregnancy-like symptoms. In addition, men with extreme Couvade often have too much cortisol – a stress-related chemical that, while effective in the face of short-term dangers, is troublesome over time.
“Too much cortisol on a long-term basis can result in increased prolactin, which can lead to physical symptoms like breast enlargement,” says Duerbeck. In these severe cases, mental health treatment to reduce anxiety can help.
Treatments for Couvade Syndrome
Luckily Couvade is almost always temporary and not serious. "For a lot of guys, symptoms spontaneously resolve in the face of male peer pressure," Duerbeck says. Barring that, they generally disappear after the baby is born.
Whatever the symptoms, we recommend you take your partner seriously. Offering support through a little honest communication about the upcoming changes in your life together is probably a lot more effective than popping a painkiller.