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Couvade Syndrome: Is sympathetic pregnancy real?

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As an expecting mom, I’m well aware of my body’s shifting chemistry and physical state. One day, a sudden lower back pain. The next day, a burst of energy and a mission to clear and rearrange every closet in the house. The next, a groggy haze and an overwhelming urge for a tuna sandwich.

We know that motherhood brings real physical changes, but is it true that men undergo some of the same transformations when their wives are pregnant?

Couvade syndrome, otherwise known as a man’s “sympathetic pregnancy,” mirrors the common symptoms of a mom’s gestation: nausea, food cravings, back aches, weight gain, and sleep problems. The condition, the name of which derives from the French verb couver, or “to hatch,” was first mentioned by anthropologists who noted that in many cultures around the world, expecting dads go through certain rituals, mental states, and behaviors that copy those of their pregnant wives.

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In our society, although Couvade syndrome isn’t listed in the psychiatric or medical diagnostic manuals, it has caught the eye of several researchers and psychologists. The incidence of male pregnancy symptoms varies from study to study, ranging anywhere from 20 to 80 percent, with the lower number reflecting the percentage of men who actually seek treatment for their condition.

Sound implausible? Or like a whole lot of fuss and drama over dad that takes away from mom’s legitimate with-child status? That may be, but there is some scientific backing to the idea that approaching fatherhood changes a man’s chemistry. For example, one team of researchers found that men with babies on the way have higher levels of prolactin and cortisol in the time just before birth and lower levels of the sex hormones testosterone and estradiol directly after. In the same study, the men with more Couvade symptoms were the ones with the highest levels of prolactin and a greater reduction in testosterone.

And research on other primates certainly suggests that becoming a dad changes the brain. For example, the inherently nurturing and highly involved male marmoset monkey has been found to grow more neurons in areas of the prefrontal cortex that are involved in caretaking and bonding when their infants are born. These primates also seem to have the same prolactin increase as do human dads while their mom monkey counterpart is pregnant.

When I asked my husband about this, he confirmed that yes, he does feel different with me being pregnant – slightly more sensitive and protective. I agree here, since I’ve caught him telling me to fasten my seatbelt, look both ways before crossing the street, and other self-care skills I believe I mastered 25 years ago. Through both pregnancies, he has seemed extra motivated to eat well and exercise, although he recalled gaining weight after my son was born three years ago because we were classically hunkered down in a baby bubble.

So my personal jury is still out on the classic Couvade symptoms of nausea, lower back pain, and pickle and peanut butter cravings, but there is no doubt that nearing fatherhood affects men. It could be the psychological experience of anxiety, uncertainty, or growing responsibility with a baby on the way. Or it could be an evolutionarily adaptive neurochemical mix that keeps fathers involved and bonds strong, so we’re a team when our little ones are born. In the end, of course there’s no linear cause and effect – emotional states change our brain chemistry and vise versa.

And as long as I don’t have to make midnight ice cream runs for my husband or rub his back while he watches TV, I kind of like the idea that while we’re expecting our second child, his brain and body may be going through their own version of a tangible transformation with me.

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