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Couvade Syndrome (Sympathy Pains)

by Dale Kiefer |

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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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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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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Guest Feb 28, 2014 05:33:10 PM ET

Is anyone else feeling or having the same symptoms i'm having. mild headaches, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, itchy skin, mood swings etc?

Kenan curiel Nov 22, 2014 05:14:22 PM ET

I'm having the same problems as you.

Jarquez Mar 25, 2017 04:12:52 AM ET

I have the same thing except headaches and dizziness

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Guest Feb 23, 2014 05:22:13 PM ET

I've been suffering from couvade syndrome ever since my wife entered her second trimester. i've been having extreme anxiety attacks, i hardly sleep, i have lost at least 15 lbs, i sometimes feel like i'm running out of breath, and i'm going through depression right now. i have no idea what to do to feel better. i've been going in and out of hospitals and i just don't feel any better. she's due in mid-may.

Elizabeth Feb 24, 2014 08:55:53 AM ET

Hi! it sounds like all of your symptoms are due to stress, and understandably so. you're going to be a dad! it's an exciting time for you, but also a time where you have more responsibility, more things to think about and of course, to stress about. all of the symptoms sound like a result of the anxiety attacks. the trouble breathing, weight loss, and the not sleeping are all symptoms on anxiety. not everyone gains weight with stress. i lose weight, and fast, when i'm stressed. and i haven't always been that way. i did the same thing with going to doctors and hospitals 3 years ago. they never found anything, except vitamin d deficiency. i'm not sure where you live, but this has been a harsh winter, and many suffer from vitamin d deficiency which if it gets too low can make anxiety worse. my doctor was stunned. my anxiety stays in check by taking 4000iu of vitamin d daily -- especially in the winter. you might want to get your levels checked. also, do some research on how to practice relaxation breathing (or use the techniques given to your wife in childbirth class) and grounding techniques to get your attacks under control. make time for yourself, and do things you enjoy. i do hope you feel better soon!

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Guest Mar 6, 2013 10:01:19 AM ET

I been feeling weak from my wife pregnancy

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Abraham Oct 8, 2012 02:26:12 PM ET

My partner jus had our first child and im still feeling all thos symptoms with a head ache. my sons been born for about 3 days, just yesterday i threw up again nd startd feeling conjestion nd heartburn. im still worried because it says it should of gone away wen he was born, any answers please let me kno ive been worrying alot.

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stacey May 15, 2012 12:46:34 AM ET

I am very late but pregnancy tests are negative. my husband is experiancing tiredness nausea constipation and i crave a lot but never feel the appetite to eat although my mouth gets really watery! this would be my first pregnancy but idk if i am .i'm 4 weeks late

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