It’s midnight and John’s craving an Oreo McFlurry and toast with peanut butter, syrup and Aromat. His wife is three months pregnant and she’s had a relatively easy pregnancy so far. She hasn’t struggled with morning sickness or heartburn and she hasn’t gained much weight. John, on the other hand, has started growing quite a substantial “bump”, he’s constantly craving the strangest foods, he often complains about nausea, and he really struggles with heartburn. This condition is commonly known as Couvade syndrome.
The medical term for Couvade syndrome is sympathetic pregnancy – when an expectant father experiences physical symptoms similar to those in pregnancy, including birth pains at or near the time of childbirth. He may also experience strange cravings, a loss of interest in sex (believe it or not), and even pre- and post-natal depression. Gynaecologist and obstetrician, Doctor Sumayya Ebrahim from the Netcare Parklane Clinic says that Couvade syndrome is not a recognised medical condition. “I think that it’s more of an anecdotal thing in history books where different social groups experience it in different ways.” Couvade syndrome is a relatively poorly recognised condition in South Africa.
It’s thought that some of the reasons behind these occurrences include:
• The father’s behaviour is said to protect the mother and baby from bad spirits by drawing them to himself.
• If the father screams louder, it strengthens the bond between him and his child.
• The father’s simulated pregnancy asserts his paternity.
• The symptoms are a form of relief from anxiety for the dad-to-be.
• This behaviour makes the father’s role in pregnancy more profound than just the sex act nine months prior.
Sympathetic pregnancy symptoms
Sumayya explains that the symptoms of Couvade syndrome can vary from mild to severe. “Fathers can experience pregnancy symptoms like indigestion, decreased appetite, constipation, diarrhoea, headaches, weight gain, morning sickness, abdominal pains, breast enlargement, and in very severe cases, they can even grow a belly which will increase to about 10–12kg.” She adds that the expectant father experiences breast enlargement because of certain psychological triggers which cause shifts in the hormone levels of prolactin, cortisol, estradiol and testosterone. She says hormonal changes are, however, not present in all expectant fathers.
An expectant father will usually start showing symptoms of Couvade syndrome by the end of his partner’s first trimester. “The symptoms can get progressively worse towards end of her pregnancy and can sometimes even last a few weeks after the baby’s born,” says Sumayya.
She says it’s possible that the symptoms expectant fathers experience are psychosomatic, meaning that they’re entirely generated in the mind, but they can still cause real physical conditions.
She further explains that nausea and vomiting experienced by the father during the pregnancy can be completely unrelated to Couvade syndrome and could be caused by anxiety over the pregnancy, since his life is about to change dramatically. This anxiety can be triggered by thoughts of the financial implications of having a baby to the fact that he’s now responsible for a little person who’s completely dependent on him.” Sumayya adds that it’s possible that dads sometimes mimic their partner’s moods because they feel a little left out and redundant. “They feel that the focus is only on the mother and the unborn baby.”
In very severe cases of this syndrome, expectant fathers can experience stomach spasms during their partner’s labour. Sumayya says this can happen because there’s interplay between stress and possible pre-existing psychological factors.
Any father-to-be is at risk of experiencing this strange phenomenon. Sumayya says there has been certain evidence that Couvade syndrome is more prominent in men who are especially worried about their partner’s pregnancy, or if they themselves were adopted as children, or if parturition (envy) is present. There has also been evidence that expectant fathers who have been treated for infertility are more likely to experience this “phantom pregnancy”. “The reason for this is that because of the difficulty involved in achieving pregnancy, the father may fear the threat of the pregnancy being unsuccessful.”
Independent Midwife, Sharon Marsay says that some of the symptoms that expectant fathers have complained about during their partner’s pregnancy include: gaining a significant amount of weight, and experiencing nausea, vomiting and headaches.” She says that some expectant fathers do find the sympathetic pregnancy amusing and they thoroughly enjoy it, as it brings them closer to their partner. “I have never seen a case where an expectant father was distressed by the symptoms that he showed or needed medical help for the symptoms.”
Tips for dads with Sympathetic pregnancy:
• Firstly, you should contact your general practitioner if you experience any strange symptoms during your partner’s pregnancy, so that you can exclude the possibility of other, more serious conditions that are unrelated to Couvade syndrome.
• Secondly, you should treat the symptoms as they appear, for example, treat heartburn with medication, etc.
• Thirdly, you should just relax about the pregnancy and get involved in it as much as possible. Attend doctor’s appointments with your partner and give her all the support she needs.
• In really extreme cases of sympathetic pregnancy, you should get psychological counselling.
Three of our Facebook friends share their partner’s symptoms …
“My husband, Faizel, suffered from terrible heartburn during my pregnancy. He drank a lot of Gaviscon sachets.”
Shariefa Rhode mom to Mujahid (11), Aalia (9) and Imaan (10 months) from Cape Town
“My husband craves ginger biscuits and he’s incredibly moody and sleeps a lot.”
Nonceba Mgidi mom to Khanya (six) , from Kensington
“My husband, Gavin, craved chillies and hot curries all the time, and we always had to have loads of ice cream in the freezer to satisfy his craving for ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Katherine Luyt, mom to Jonathan (two) from Pretoria
Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals. Meet the Living & Loving Team and our Online Experts.