Couvade syndrome: when dads have pregnancy pains too

couvade syndrome
couvade syndrome 

Insomnia, nausea, tiredness and indigestion. While they’re not the most wonderful part of pregnancy, they usually don’t come as a surprise – unless it’s the dad-to-be who’s the one suffering.

“It seemed too ‘made-up’ to be real … something blokes use to get out of doing the housework,” says Chris Anderson, who began experiencing pregnancy-like symptoms half-way through his wife’s pregnancy. The 30-year-old dad of one says he became incredibly tired, experienced stomach cramping and felt generally run-down while she was expecting.

While he’d read about other dads-to-be going through this sympathetic pregnancy experience, he says he “thought it was a joke until it was actually happening”.

“It was more amusing than serious, but it did actually happen … I have no explanation for it whatsoever,” he says.

As funny as it may sound, research suggests that one in three Australian men discover that this curious phenomenon is quite real. It even has a name: couvade syndrome. The name derives from the French “couver”, meaning to hatch or to brood.

The syndrome is something that occurs in most industrialised parts of the world, with a prevalence of up to 65 per cent in some countries. There are reports of men craving food from their childhood, developing larger breasts and even having a baby bump to show off – minus the baby.

The most common symptoms, though, are unexplained weight gain, tiredness, anxiety, nausea, changes in sleep patterns and stomach pain.

James Tew, a 25-year-old father of three, developed stomach pains so severe during his wife’s second pregnancy that he consulted a doctor. “It was extremely uncomfortable – it felt like my stomach was in a knot all day,” he says. “It was getting to the point where it was affecting my work, and certainly my ability to help around the home.” A consultation with a doctor and ultrasound examinations failed to find a cause for the problem.

While some suggest the syndrome may simply be a result of anxiety, ambivalence about impending fatherhood, feelings of marginalisation or other psychological processes, scientists have discovered another possible part of the equation. During pregnancy and birth, some men experience similar hormonal changes as those that occur in their pregnant partners, with higher concentrations of the hormones prolactin and cortisol prior to the birth, and a drop in testosterone following the birth.

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Interestingly, at least one study has linked these hormonal changes to couvade syndrome. The male participants in the study who experienced the biggest hormonal changes also experienced more pregnancy-like symptoms.    

In Australia, Dr John Eden, Associate Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology at the University of New South Wales, demonstrated the drop in testosterone levels of new dads in a small pilot study. However, he cautions that this is only a new area of research: “We just don't know yet what these [hormonal] changes mean.”

More recent research has focused on the character traits of dads who experience this syndrome. A Polish study, published earlier this year, found that the syndrome is associated with male empathy: men who were more willing and able to understand and share in the emotional aspect of their partner’s pregnancy experience were more prone to “physiologically experience the pregnancy of their female partners”.

Stephen O’Connor, a dad of three, was surprised to discover he had physiologically experienced one part of his wife’s pregnancy. While his wife was gaining weight during the her second pregnancy, as expected, he was matching her weight gain – kilo for kilo.

Both he and his wife gained 9kg each during the pregnancy. “I got a bit of a shock when I hopped on the scales and realised I had put on that amount of weight in that short period of time,” he says. “I don’t think I was eating unhealthy, I’m a young, fit person. I’d never put on that amount of weight before, I’ve always had a pretty quick metabolism and played sport.”

While he lost most of the weight following the birth, his attempt to make sense of his rapid weight gain is in line with the results of the Polish study on couvade syndrome.

“I think maybe I felt like I didn’t want [my wife] to feel like she was getting big and I felt bad that she was not feeling good about herself. Perhaps I thought to myself, without realising it, ‘I love you, so how about I just put on a few extra kilos too’.”

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