Couvade Syndrome: When Men Experience Pregnancy Symptoms

You may have heard the term “sympathy weight,” referring to the extra pounds a father puts on during his partner’s pregnancy. And for some dads, the prospect of becoming a new father may go even further than weight gain. Men whose partners are expecting a baby may develop a range of emotional and physical symptoms of pregnancy known as couvade syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy.

What Is Couvade Syndrome (a.k.a. Sympathetic Pregnancy)?

Couvade syndrome or couvade is a term used to describe sympathetic pregnancy in men; the word couvade comes from the Breton word couver, which means to brood, hatch, or incubate. In this situation, some men experience symptoms that mimic those experienced by their partners during their pregnancies. Though it’s been studied by experts in different fields, couvade syndrome is not considered to be an actual disease or psychological condition. Couvade has been linked by anthropologists to ritualistic behaviors practiced by ancient peoples. In these rituals, men pretended to be pregnant during their partners’ pregnancies and enacted similar experiences of being pregnant, including imitating labor and delivery. Couvade as we know it today could be connected to the shifting perspectives on fatherhood and the more participatory role expectant dads may play during pregnancy and childbirth.

Couvade Syndrome and Shifting Perspectives on Fatherhood

Traditionally, the role of the father has been socially constructed as that of the provider and protector. During a partner’s pregnancy, fathers have often been relegated to that of the observer. Nowadays, it’s common and even expected that a father take on a more prominent role in his partner’s pregnancy. This can include attending prenatal appointments and classes, taking part in childbirth, and even practicing skin-to-skin contact with his newborn soon after birth. It’s possible that as dads become more deeply involved in pregnancy, they become more conscious of any pregnancy-related symptoms they are experiencing themselves—contributing to a greater awareness of couvade syndrome.

Can Men Actually Experience Pregnancy Symptoms?

Since men can’t become pregnant, it’s natural to wonder whether men can actually have pregnancy symptoms, such as morning sickness, and if so, why do men get pregnancy symptoms? It turns out that men can experience a number of pregnancy-related symptoms, both physical and psychological, as listed below. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that couvade may be a common phenomenon, but it’s not known for certain how many men have any symptoms or whether couvade is a physical condition with psychological causes, or something else. One area of couvade syndrome research has focused on a man’s levels of empathy and sensitivity in general. Some studies have shown that sensitive male subjects with pregnant partners experience the physiological symptoms of pregnancy as a way to deal with the psychological distress of becoming a father. This type of empathy is called “compathy,” which refers to the symbiotic sharing of feelings, and, in the case of couvade syndrome, even the physical aspects like morning sickness. Another theory is that men may develop pregnancy symptoms as part of a phenomenon called “loading.” This entails psychologically feeling and taking on the suffering of someone else—in this case the pregnant partner—and manifesting it physically. This could be a more likely scenario for first-time dads, who may be more anxious about the life-changing aspects of fatherhood; second-time fathers may find the experience completely different. Hormonal changes in the expectant dad may also play a part in couvade syndrome, though the research thus far is inconclusive.

Symptoms of Couvade Syndrome

Physical signs and symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy (couvade syndrome in men) can include the following:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Intestinal problems such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation

  • Heartburn

  • Changes in appetite

  • Weight gain or loss

  • Toothaches

  • Backaches

  • Skin problems

  • Leg cramps

  • Fainting

  • Weakness

  • Urinary or genital irritations.

Psychological signs and symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy (couvade syndrome in men) can include the following:

  • Change in sleeping patterns

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Reduced libido

  • Restlessness.

When Does Couvade Syndrome Start and How Long Do Symptoms Last?

Researchers have observed that the symptoms of couvade syndrome often emerge in men during their pregnant partner’s first trimester. The symptoms then are apt to disappear in the second trimester before reappearing in the third trimester, which is when the symptoms are at their worst. Couvade syndrome finally disappears once the child is born.

Is There Treatment for Couvade Syndrome?

There is no specific treatment for couvade syndrome, which, as mentioned above, is not considered a disease or recognized as a psychological condition. However, if you’re an expectant dad and have symptoms that mimic those of your pregnant partner—in other words, symptoms of couvade syndrome—there are ways to ease the symptoms. Taking the following steps during your partner’s pregnancy may help with some of the more challenging physical and emotional symptoms of couvade syndrome.

  • Prep yourself. This may involve attending a prenatal class with your pregnant partner and/or reading up on books, websites, or blogs on fatherhood.

  • Talk to someone. Have a conversation with your partner about parenthood. Speak to close friends and family about your inhibitions. They may give you some unsolicited advice, but it may be worth listening. Or, speak to a psychologist/therapist who can give you the tools to cope with your anxieties.

  • Plan ahead for the challenges. This may involve babyproofing the house in advance, or just mentally preparing yourself for the big change of being a father for the first time.

The Bottom Line

Despite there being little research on couvade syndrome, it’s a genuine concern for those men who develop any symptoms and experience a sympathetic pregnancy. No matter what lies behind couvade syndrome, it’s a phenomenon that can affect expectant fathers, often first-time dads who are more likely to take on the anxieties of new fatherhood. The symptoms of couvade syndrome include both psychological and physical conditions that may include aches, pains, nausea, bloating, anxiety, depression, and much more. The symptoms often appear during the pregnant partner’s first trimester, go away for the second trimester, and reappear in the third trimester. Symptoms are believed to disappear completely once the child is born. If as a dad you are experiencing any of the characteristic symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy, or if you are being affected by couvade syndrome in any other way, speak to your partner, your family, or your healthcare provider. Sharing what you’re feeling and experiencing can make it better.