Male Sympathy Pregnancy: Real, or a Scam for Ice-Cream?


The first trimester can be extremely rough during pregnancy.  Morning sickness, headaches, back pain, exhaustion and raging hormones make the days drag while the symptoms persist.

And that’s just the men…

Just in time for Father’s Day, a new study has come out stating that “Couvade Syndrome,” is in fact a real medical diagnosis.  Although male pregnancies have been a staple of sitcoms and movies, from Cosby Show to Junior, the idea that men experience sympathetic pregnancies has been little more than comic fodder for the most part.  Now, thanks to Dr. Arthur Brennen, not only might men be taken a bit more seriously in their suffering, but they also might be able to wear it as a badge of honor.  From BBC News:

Researchers at St George’s University, London, who carried out the study of 282 Dads-to-be said the phenomenon was known as “Couvade syndrome”.

Experts said it was not clear why some men had similar symptoms to their partners but it could be related to anxiety over the pregnancy.

Most men noticed symptoms in the early stages of their partner’s pregnancy. Others had to cope with problems right up until the delivery.

Most symptoms disappeared after the birth.

 “These men were so attuned to their partners, they started to develop the same symptoms,” said Dr Arthur Brennan, senior lecturer at St Georges, who led the study.

The phenomenon appears to have a physical explanation behind it, as well.  From the Daily Mirror:

I must admit I wondered initially if men were trying to elicit attention from wives bound up with the imminent arrival of a newborn.

However, I actually discovered that, on the contrary, these signs of empathy have a more useful function: they help to prepare the new father for his nurturing role.

Which raises the interesting question: are the symptoms merely psychosomatic? Or are men like Michel undergoing a more interesting physiological phenomenon; a hormonal shift in which their bodies actually start to emulate those of their expectant wives as a way of priming them for their new, caring function?

Fascinating new evidence shows that the latter appears to be the case. Dr Arthur Brennan of Kingston University, London, studied 282 fathers-to-be.

He found that 55 per cent of them were experiencing symptoms that most of us associate with pregnant mothers.

Mr. Brennan believes that this was caused by elevated levels of the mothering hormone prolactin. Customarily associated with breast-feeding mothers, it was also present in these fathers.

So, sympathy pregnancies seem to be not just brought about by elevated hormones, but also are a sign of being extremely close to your pregnant partner.  Rather than exploiting and horning in on her experience, it appears to be a man’s attempt to both become closer to the mother of his child and prepare himself for his role as father. 

Personally, I find myself sort of touched.  After sharing the study with my husband, his face lit up.  “So that’s why I’ve been sick to my stomach for the last two months,” he joked.  “I’m obviously a really good father!”

“And here I thought you just really hated your job.”

Despite the backing now of the medical establishment, it’s still fairly hard for any of us who are suffering through true pregnancy to take our poor partners’ sufferings very seriously.  In an informal poll of women in my pregnancy support group, those who have “pregnant” husbands seem to take their symptoms with more laughter than anything else.

“My husband said he was also getting carpal tunnel problems because he kept having to use the remote to drown out my throwing up,” one woman teased. The most frequent complaint from the women was that their dads-to-be were gaining weight faster than they were.

One told me, “During my last pregnancy, my husband had to go to the doctor for a healthy patient visit. During the course of normal pre-exam chit-chat, my husband mentioned that I was 30 weeks pregnant with our first. After looking at his chart, the doctor commented, ‘You’re right on track then.’ With a questioning look on his face, my husband asked, ‘On track for what?’  ‘For weight gain, you’re up about 15 pounds from last year!’ That got my husband reevaluating his food consumption!”

Still, sympathy pregnancies or just enjoying a chance to indulge, hormones or just a little anxious, it’s a good time to tell those fathers that we appreciate all that they do to support us in this often uncomfortable and awkward time. 

Just don’t ask me to hold your hair while you throw up, please.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Robin Marty on twitter: @robinmarty

  • amanda-marcotte

    Research has shown that the more sexist a man is, the worse his sympathetic pregnancy is. It seems quite possible that it’s a subconscious inability to accept that a woman is the one performing such an important task.