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Male Sympathetic Pregnancy

It may seem hard to believe, but the next time your husband complains that he too has morning sickness, or that he is putting on the pregnancy pounds as well, don’t be too hasty to scoff at the idea! He may be experiencing Couvade Syndrome.

“Couvade” (which comes from the French word couver, meaning “to hatch”) may affect as many as 80 percent of expectant fathers, according to Scientific American. While many men experience this syndrome in one form or another, only a small percentage will display the more dramatic symptoms.

Couvade Symptoms

Dr. Carol Kleinman, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, says that Couvade Syndrome has come to mean “a man having a sympathetic pregnancy and is the condition where a husband of a pregnant woman develops some of the symptoms of pregnancy.”

According to Dr. Kleinman, the typical symptoms include vomiting, weight gain, indigestion, increased or decreased appetite, diarrhea, constipation, toothaches, and headaches. Other symptoms include mood swings, itchy skin, and insomnia. “It usually begins at the end of the first trimester and increases in severity until the third trimester—and the only known cure for Couvade is birth,” says Dr. Kleinman.

Michelle Ramos, 33 weeks pregnant with her first baby, says that her husband, Daniel, started his symptoms almost from the day she found out she was pregnant. “I had heartburn from the first day and thought I had an ulcer until I realized I was late for my period. From the very beginning Daniel wasn’t well either—it seemed like for every three TUMS I ate, he had to have a couple himself. We went through a lot of TUMS in those early days!”

When Ramos experienced abdominal cramping between weeks eight and 15 due to her stomach stretching out a little, her husband ached right along with her. “Since he obviously wasn’t pregnant, we didn’t know what was wrong with him. I would call my mom and tell her the stories about his strange behavior and she would laugh and tell me that my father had behaved in the same way. So I knew it was possible for men to act funny during pregnancy, but we didn’t know it was an actual syndrome, with a name, until about the fourth or fifth month.”

Ramos is no longer experiencing cravings, but in earlier days she and her husband had many arguments over their shared pregnancy symptoms—mostly because he kept eating her food. “I sent him out one night for canned pineapple chunks and he came back with two cans—one for that night and one for later should the cravings return.” They opened one can and put the other away for the next time, but when Ramos next craved the fruit, the spare can had disappeared. Her husband admitted to having eaten it when she was napping one day. They subsequently had the same problem with chocolate candy, apples, and other leftovers—and her husband experienced heartburn, abdominal pains, and cramps.

“What was most surprising was that he’d often ask me ‘What are you in the mood for?’ and before I could answer, he would suggest exactly what I had in mind!” Ramos mentioned her husband’s strange behavior to her doctor, who didn’t seem surprised to hear about it, and her only comment on the situation was “it happens.”

Couvade Contributors

No one really knows why Couvade happens or why it seems to be occurring more frequently, but theories revolve around changes in society over the last 30 years; today’s fathers play a much larger role in pregnancy and birth. Additional theories that try to explain this phenomenon include:

  • A physical expression of anxiety over the birth
  • Sympathy or empathy with the mother
  • An assertion of paternity
  • Jealousy at the mother’s ability to carry a child and her birth experience

Dealing with Couvade

Dr. Kleinman adds that some men certainly are more likely to experience Couvade than others, especially if the woman has been having fertility problems or the man is adopted. “Couvade has been seen as an expression of somatized anxiety, pseudo-sibling rivalry, identification with the fetus, or ambivalence about fatherhood.”

Whichever theory seems to characterize your husband most is probably the right one. Dr. Kleinman goes on to say that it is likely that the dynamics of Couvade may vary between individuals and may be multidetermined (i.e. several factors contribute to the existence of the syndrome).

So the next time your husband insists that he is unwell and unable to do something you ask because he is “experiencing the pangs of pregnancy,” take pity on him and remember that not only will his symptoms disappear with the birth of your child, but so will his excuses!

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