Congratulations, you’re pregnant! Or… not? What if we told you there was such a thing as phantom or false pregnancy. A condition or belief that has you feeling all those regular pregnancy symptoms, including nausea, sore boobs, missed periods, weight gain and even the sensation of baby kicks, but it’s not real. None of it. There is no baby growing inside of you. This is pseudocyesis. I know, WTF right?!
What is pseudocyesis?
To put it super simply, pseudocyesis (or false pregnancy in layman’s terms) is when a woman experiences many or all the signs and symptoms of pregnancy and is expecting to have a baby, however, conception has not taken place and no baby is developing. And before you go there—no this is not some attention-seeking ploy where a lady stuffs a pillow under her shirt and pretends to be pregnant for a government payout or mat leave benefits (this actually happened), pseudocyesis pregnancy is some serious sh*t.
OK, so the experts haven’t exactly 100 per cent nailed what causes pseudocyesis, however, they are starting to understand more about the psychological and physical issues that are at the root of pseudocyesis pregnancy.
There are several theories around what causes pseudocyesis. Anna Hernadez, MD, has put in the hard yards with a sh*t tonne of research. So let’s break it down… She found that pseudocyesis is often experienced by women who have an overwhelming desire (or sometimes fear) of becoming pregnant. Imagine wanting a baby so much that you’d do anything to be pregnant. Perhaps you’ve been trying for a long time with no success, or have even gone through the devastating loss of one or more miscarriages. Then, you feel some changes in your body occur—and you misread these as signs of pregnancy. These small signs that you’re reading into so heavily then impact the endocrine system, causing actual pregnancy symptoms to occur. Wild.
Research has also shown that social factors can cause pseudocyesis pregnancy. Sadly, it’s believed that pseudocyesis pregnancy occurs as a way to cope with grim experiences such as poverty, lack of education, cultural or family pressures, loneliness, physical or mental trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, or relationship problems.
When it comes to pseudocyesis, symptoms are identical to an actual pregnancy, and might last for a few weeks, or in some cases all the way through to the final trimester—so it’s no wonder women genuinely believe they’re pregnant. What a headf*ck.
In many cases of pseudocyesis, women have elevated levels of oestrogen or prolactin, which is why those who are experiencing a pseudocyesis pregnancy may have any or all of the regular pregnancy symptoms, including:
- Breast tenderness and enlargement
- Growing belly and weight gain
- Nausea and vomiting (morning sickness)
- Missed periods
- Frequent urination
- Food cravings
- The sensation of baby kicks and movement.
The most common physical pseudocyesis symptom is a growing belly. Dr Tanya Tantry explains that this can be thanks to an accumulation of gas, faeces, fat, or urine… which sounds just… delightful.
Some pseudocyesis symptoms may also be the result of certain medical conditions that can cause elevated hormone levels or other physical reactions. These can include ectopic pregnancy, morbid obesity, and cancer (please don’t go on a web search frenzy asking “do I have cancer”, best to consult with an actual medical professional, not Dr Google).
How common is pseudocyesis?
While this all might be news to you, false pregnancy is no new concept. Pseudocyesis has occurred since ancient times and was described by Hippocrates way back in 300 B.C.
There is no real way to prevent pseudocyesis and it doesn’t discriminate—even the Queen of England, Mary Tudor experienced two pseudocyesis pregnancies during her reign in the 1500s.
Pseudocyesis is more common in areas of the world where medical care is hard to access. This is because women who are experiencing a false pregnancy won’t have access to a medical professional and get an ultrasound until much later in their pregnancy.
As the Indian Journal of Psychiatry explains, pseudocyesis is much rarer these days, particularly in more developed countries where there are approximately one to six cases in every 22,000 births, however, in countries such as Africa, there is a much higher rate where pseudocyesis occurs in one out of 160 patients. Experts put this down to the heavy cultural emphasis on fertility. The journal also found that most cases of pseudocyesis are among women aged 20-44 years.
While the phenomenon of false pregnancy is rather rare nowadays, it’s important to remember that it is very real for the women experiencing it, and can be a lot to process both physically and mentally.
How to diagnose and treat pseudocyesis
No, but seriously, how the hell do you not know you’re not pregnant!?
While most at-home pregnancy tests will offer a negative result there is a small chance of a false positive showing up, so the best way to know if you’re pregnant or not for sure is to organise an ultrasound through your GP or obstetrician. There, the sonographer will perform a pelvic exam and check for a baby’s heartbeat. Seeing in black and white that there is in fact no baby growing, is often enough for pseudocyesis symptoms to diminish, and if there are any health concerns such as menstrual irregularities, the right care can then be provided.
For some other hopeful mums, the belief in their pregnancy may still be strong, and coming to terms with not being pregnant can be difficult to swallow. We won’t sugarcoat it, this can be really painful, and emotional, and often bring with it much grief, anxiety or even denial. Truly feeling you are pregnant and wanting a baby, and then discovering it’s not to be is heartbreaking, and may take some time to come to terms with. It’s important to speak with your partner, friends, family and if need be a counsellor or mental health professional about how you’re feeling, and take the time to grieve your loss.
Pseudocyesis in men
Did you know that pseudocyesis can occur in men?—which sounds like some Arnold Schwarzenegger sh*t from the movie Junior. But no, it’s real-life stuff.
Couvade syndrome or “sympathetic pregnancy”, as it’s commonly called, is an involuntary manifestation of pregnancy in men who have a partner who is pregnant. Men with Couvade syndrome experience symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating, back pain, lethargy, morning sickness, and food cravings and aversions. So if you thought dealing with your partner’s man flu was bad enough, just imagine this!
But how? There are multiple theories around Couvade syndrome… Put most simply it is believed that it could come about from a man envying a woman’s ability to be pregnant and make a baby (wonder if they envy the labour part too). Other psychosocial theories say that it can occur because dads feel marginalised during the transition into parenthood. A connection has been shown between the man’s involvement in pregnancy, role preparation and the syndrome. (Gentlemen, if you want more responsibility, we’re not going to stand in your way. Just sayin’).
A final note
Trying to get pregnant is puzzling enough, without having to second guess your symptoms and wonder whether it’s all just in your head. If you or someone you know is struggling to conceive or has experienced a pseudocyesis pregnancy, it’s important to take the time to process your emotions and share what you’re feeling with your support team. Talk to your friends and family, or to a professional if you prefer. Just know that you don’t have to do it alone.