Many expectant fathers experience sympathy pain during their partner’s pregnancy.
Their partners might be the pregnant ones, but some fathers experience pregnancy-related symptoms of their own. For example, they might have food cravings or gain weight. For fathers-to-be, these symptoms are a sort of sympathy pain in response to their partner’s pregnancy. It’s also known as Couvade syndrome.
Sometimes referred to as a sympathetic pregnancy, Couvade syndrome is caused by the anxiety some men feel when faced with the idea of becoming a father.
The syndrome is not a disease, but it’s more common than some may think. In the United States, the phenomenon affects 25 to 52 percent of fathers; especially among those who are expecting their first child. That being said, men rarely talk about these symptoms. They may not be convinced that the symptoms are related to their partner’s pregnancy, and tend to look for another explanation. Conversely, it’s easier for mothers to make the connection.
What about lesbian couples?
Although the idea of Couvade syndrome has been around for decades, it’s only been studied in fathers. For this reason, there’s very little information on how it might affect couples with two mothers.
That being said, we know that Couvade is a way for new fathers to channel their anxiety. Even though they’re not the ones carrying the child, having a baby is still a stress-inducing life change for them. Experiencing Couvade symptoms prepares new dads for parenthood and helps them empathize with a pregnant partner by sharing certain symptoms with her. It’s certainly plausible that same-sex parents may also experience these symptoms.
Nevertheless, some experts believe that female couples tend to view both members as equal mothers—whether or not they’re carrying the child. They seem to place less emphasis on the physiological aspect of parenthood than heterosexual couples do. This could mean fewer women in same-sex couples experience Couvade.
It would be interesting to see future studies focusing on the phenomenon in couples consisting of two mothers.
Couvade syndrome is a term used to describe a wide variety of physical and psychological symptoms that men feel while their partner is pregnant. Symptoms generally appear in the first trimester, typically subside in the second trimester, and return more intensely in the third trimester. They often disappear once the baby is born or shortly afterward.
Couvade syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder, meaning the feelings of anxiety and depression manifest physically. The most common physical symptoms are nausea, vomiting, heartburn, changes in appetite, toothache, weight gain, food cravings, diarrhea, and even abdominal pain. However, abdominal pain and diarrhea are not necessarily symptoms of Couvade.
Some expectant fathers may also suffer symptoms that affect their psychological well-being. This can include mood swings, nervousness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Why does this happen?
There are several theories that may explain Couvade syndrome.
Couvade could be a hormonal response. Some studies have suggested Couvade syndrome is linked to a decrease in testosterone. In addition, men who suddenly produce more prolactin—a hormone that plays a key role during pregnancy and lactation—are more likely to experience symptoms of Couvade. Once the baby is born, these fathers often have a stronger emotional reaction to their baby’s cues.
Couvade could also be due to the father’s desire to be physically involved in his partner’s pregnancy. In certain traditional societies, the transition from young man to father is symbolically marked by a ritual in which pregnancy and childbirth are mimicked.
Couvade may be a way for some men to express their anxiety and fears about the health of their baby, being responsible for a new member of the family, or not knowing how to take care of a newborn. By the same token, men who are more easily affected by the negative emotions of others are more likely to experience pregnancy-related symptoms.
Couvade symptoms may appear in reaction to the transition to fatherhood, allowing the father to adjust to the emotions associated with his new role. It enables him to identify with his partner and gain a better understanding of what she is going through, increasing both his empathy for her and his ability to respond to her needs. Couvade syndrome also lets fathers channel their anxiety about becoming a father. Men who have participated in prenatal classes are more likely to experience Couvade symptoms. This syndrome may develop as a result of the father’s involvement in his partner’s pregnancy and his preparation for his role as a father.
Couvade may be a more socially acceptable way to adopt a more maternal role as a man. In other words, it gives men a chance to get in touch with their feminine side.
The unpleasant physical symptoms could be a way to relieve themself of the guilt they feel over feeling envious and jealous of the maternal attention that is diverted to the unborn child.
Couvade may also result from feeling left out, as all attention is focused on the expectant mother. Fathers may experience symptoms out of envy for their partner’s ability to carry a child. They may also fear losing their place in their relationship with their partner.
If the mom-to-be typically does the cooking, her food cravings and increased dietary needs may also alter the family’s diet, resulting in weight gain and gastrointestinal discomfort in the expectant father.
What to do
There are several strategies to help ease an expectant dad’s transition to fatherhood.
- Establish good lifestyle habits. For example, stay away from foods that are too fatty or too sweet, avoid snacking, eat a varied diet, drink enough water, be physically active, and take the time to rest.
- Talk to your partner about your emotions and read up on what you can do to ease your concerns. Sharing your experiences with other expectant fathers can also help.
Talk to a professional if the father-to-be feels the need; symptoms of Couvade may hide deeper feelings of anxiety, depression, or difficulty adapting to the role of future father.
- Be as involved as possible in the pregnancy to avoid feeling left out. Fathers-to-be can participate in prenatal classes, accompany their partners to medical appointments and ultrasounds, take care of the administrative procedures for the delivery, prepare the baby’s room, etc.
- Stroke your partner’s belly and talk to your baby regularly. It will help you make contact and bond with your baby.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of Couvade, discuss them with your doctor as well. The symptoms may indicate underlying issues within your partnership that are worth exploring further. Everyone reacts differently to stress. Your symptoms may be a sign that you need the help of a health care professional to ensure you and your pregnant partner have the best experience possible.
Things to keep in mind
Many fathers-to-be experience pregnancy-related symptoms.
The symptoms can be both physical and psychological.
Couvade syndrome may be due to hormonal changes or to the challenge of transitioning to fatherhood.
If you’re an expectant father and you’re experiencing pregnancy-related symptoms, talk to your partner or your physician.
Scientific review: Geneviève Parent, sexologist and psychotherapist
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2022
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