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Couvade Syndrome (Sympathy Pains)

by Dale Kiefer |
46 Comments


As if enduring your wife's moods while she's enduring the discomforts of pregnancy isn't enough, some men kick it up a notch and join their mates in the fun on a physical level. Although few men have ever heard of Couvade syndrome, researchers tell us that this phenomenon -- in which men experience physical symptoms and pains associated with late-stage pregnancy -- is surprisingly common. The name derives from the French word, couver, which means, "to hatch".

Although symptoms are psychosomatic -- meaning that they are entirely generated by the mind -- the physical discomforts experienced by men afflicted with Couvade syndrome are nevertheless very real. They include any number of the usual suspects: indigestion, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, oscillating appetite, weight gain, diarrhea (or its corollary, constipation), headache, toothache, itchy skin and even backache.

Curious but common?

While it's been described as "common" among expectant fathers, (occurring in up to 80% of expectant dads, according to one estimate), a look at the criteria for inclusion under the Couvade umbrella elicits a certain amount of skepticism. What expectant father hasn't experienced a little insomnia or an occasional headache? Can you say "understandable stress"? If these occasional, more common complaints are screened out, it seems likely that full-blown Couvade syndrome is a rare entity indeed. Men who experience symptoms that seem truly unbelievable, such as abdominal muscle spasms during labor and delivery, probably number among only five to ten percent of the expectant father population.

To be sure, some researchers deny the existence of the condition altogether: One small European study failed to identify any statistically significant occurrence of the condition among its study population. On the other hand, some experts claim that the syndrome is actually becoming more common among Western men as their roles in childbirth and childcare continue to morph from distant provider to a more nurturing, active caregiver role.

Expectant fathers who think pregnancy is already grueling enough without enduring bloating, constipation and nausea on a personal level can take comfort from the knowledge that onset of symptoms usually does not occur until the late stages of pregnancy, although some men begin manifesting symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy as early as the end of the first trimester. Blessedly, much like the real pregnancy it mimics, Couvade's symptoms disappear after the baby is delivered. So Couvade has a surefire cure: birth.

Reverse penis envy anyone?

Numerous explanations for this bizarre display of male mind-over-matter have been proposed. Most experts concede that there is probably no single explanation for the phenomenon. Indeed, a wide variety of factors may play a role in triggering Couvade. Some see Couvade as an expression of pseudo-sibling rivalry ("if my wife can do it, so can I"). Other explanations include: somatized anxiety (think of this as pregnancy jitters that manifest as physical symptoms), identification with the fetus, sympathy for one's partner, or ambivalence about fatherhood. Then there's the ever-popular theory of reverse penis envy (womb envy?), the belief that Couvade is an expression of guilt over having impregnated one's partner, or the explanation that Couvade represents a man's attempt to assert his paternity. Seems a little extreme, but apparently some man will go to any lengths to be fathers. And indeed, there's speculation that Couvade is more common among couples that have experienced infertility difficulties.

We are the world

Couvade evidently knows no particular ethnic or socioeconomic boundaries. It has been documented in a wide variety of cultures around the world. Some researchers draw a comparison between modern Couvade syndrome and ancient primitive initiation-into-paternity rituals. And you thought shopping for nursery furniture was torture enough.

In any event, the most common symptoms associated with modern Couvade include appetite changes, insomnia and weight gain. Again, it seems only natural that a stressed-out expectant father should respond to the anxiety of pregnancy by losing a little sleep or losing his appetite. But some men get so incredibly wrapped up in their pseudo-pregnancies that they actually experience stomach spasms during their partners' labor.

In one study of this otherwise little-understood syndrome, a whopping 92% of men experiencing some Couvade symptoms reported a "strong emotional involvement" with the pregnancy. While it can't necessarily be concluded that deep feelings about one's baby can trigger Couvade, it is true that Couvade and strong feelings about the fetus are almost always related, in some manner.

What should you do if you feel you are becoming a Couvade dad? Discuss you concerns with your mate and, if things do not improve, talk with your wife's OB/GYN.

Dale Kiefer is a free-lance writer living in northern New Jersey with his wife and two young sons. Born in New Jersey some 40 years ago, Dale was raised in Kentucky, where he spent most of his life, graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Biological Sciences. You can see more of Dale's articles at his Suite 101 page devoted to expectant fathers

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Emma Nov 5, 2017 06:27:32 AM ET

On 13 days past unprotected sex. my boyfriend is getting some of the pregnancy symptoms for the past 3 days. sickness, feeling faint, and headaches. he keeps saying he thinks i may be pregnant period due tomorrow.

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Jarquez Mar 25, 2017 04:10:21 AM ET

I just began having insomnia, and decrease in appetite, and mood swings. is that a sign of my girlfriend being pregnant??

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Brittani Feb 2, 2017 08:05:59 PM ET

Me and my husband are very gassy, is that normal ?

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Nikki Jan 25, 2017 02:14:45 AM ET

Hi i'm in my 3rd trimester and my boyfriend has been feeling my symptoms this entire pregnancy. some nights he can't sleep at all because of the nausea, and pains and dizziness. hopefully it goes away after i deliver!

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Stew Dec 1, 2016 10:08:38 AM ET

We're are at 7 months and i have been experiencing symptoms since my wife's 3rd month. i have been experiencing weight loss, weakness, shortness of breath, feeling week. i can't wait until this is done.

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benny Oct 18, 2016 05:09:12 AM ET

My girlfriend is in her second trimester, i feel sick, dizziness, appetite is gone, heart burn, stressed out etc. i went in and out of the hospital but, after reading some articles here, i realize that these are pregnancy symptoms in men. so, i am waiting in vain for that delivery day...

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Danny Mar 16, 2015 06:08:50 PM ET

Can i get dizzy when my wife is pregnant?

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ELI Mar 5, 2015 07:45:55 AM ET

I'm having the same symptoms, but i'm afraid to tell her.

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Guest Nov 19, 2014 12:18:46 AM ET

My wife is 1 month pregnant and i am don't feel any different. could that mean it's not mine?

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Guest Mar 17, 2014 05:38:10 PM ET

Someone please help! my wife and i are on our 2nd pregnancy and this one is far worse than the first for sympathy pains. i have headaches a lot and constant, constant nausea. i've lost at least 15lbs and we are only 3 months in!!

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