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Sympathetic to a Fault? Fathers Who Experience Pregnancy Symptoms

Katlyn Joy |23, September 2014


It's been known to occur for ages, and in various cultures throughout the world, but couvades, or sympathetic pregnancy is little-understood. However, it's making news as a Brit claims to be the first man to be excused from work due to sympathetic pregnancy symptoms.

Harry Ashby, 29, is a British security guard who is engaged to hairdresser, Charlotte Allsopp, 19. The couple is expecting a baby at the first of the year. Ashby went to the doctor for his persistent nausea and was given the diagnosis of Couvade syndrome and a note to excuse him. He also reports getting a tummy, and enlarged breasts.

Couvade comes from the French for "brood," and was coined by anthropologist E.B.Toyler in 1865 to describe rituals related to pregnancy and childbirth involving the fathers. Couvade has been noted in cultures as varied as ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, to Thailand, Borneo and Spain.

Ritual couvades often involved a father taking to bed when his wife was in labor, and mimicking her labor pains. The rituals are thought to have been observed in order to identify the child's father, to relieve a father's anxiety while the child was being born, or to attract evil spirits to the father instead of the mother and child, since the father was seen as spiritually stronger.

Ritual couvade has all but disappeared today, but the syndrome that takes its name from it continues to this day. Couvade include both physical and emotional symptoms. It's known to be pretty common, especially in the developed cultures of the West, but it may even be underreported as many men will be reluctant to discuss it or not feel it's severe enough to warrant seeking medical attention.

According to the Mayo Clinic those physical symptoms include:

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Leg cramps
  • Toothaches
  • Backaches
  • Urinary problems
  • Genital symptoms

The emotional symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleeping patterns disturbed
  • Lowered sex drive
  • Restlessness

While the syndrome is widely known and may be rather common, it is not understood as to whether it is a psychological condition or a physical one. If a psychiatric one, it may be attributed to feelings of fear, jealousy or guilt at impregnating his mate. It could be due to a fluctuation in hormones, as men's hormone levels may influence emotions or physical symptoms. It could be a psychosomatic condition, where emotions cause actual physical symptoms like when a person feels butterflies in the stomach, for instance.

Some experts have pointed to the increase of father's presence in birthing rooms, involvement in pregnancy and birth as the reasons behind more cases of couvades in Western culture in recent years.

Other factors may be related to the changes in the household habits due to a woman's pregnancy. For instance, if the woman does the grocery shopping and cooking, her changing tastes and appetites may impact the man's diet as well, leading to weight gain, and digestive issues like heartburn or indigestion, nausea or vomiting, and constipation or diarrhea.

There is no treatment as such for the syndrome, since it's little studied and understood. However, many men will feel some relief, and perhaps some diminished symptoms by just being educated about sympathetic pregnancy and how common it is.

For others, attending birth classes, reading books about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, or feeling more involved by attending doctor's visits may help.

Talking to family members, more experienced fathers and spouses, may help expectant dads to feel more relaxed and confident about their new role as fathers. Taking a more active approach to relaxation may also prove helpful. Consider learning relaxation exercises, slow breathing patterns, or meditation. Yoga can help with a number of physical complaints as well as lower stress in participants, and the pregnant woman can participate with her husband in most these activities to help her with her symptoms as well.

Related Articles

Expectant Fathers' Hormones Change During Their Partner's Pregnancy

Top Fears Men Have During Pregnancy

Can a Pregnancy Simulator Actually Create Empathy in Dads?

Couvade Syndrome (Sympathy Pains)

Brace Yourself for Galloping Guilt


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Lashawn Dec 29, 2016 04:40:11 AM ET

Yes, I have been having pregnancy symptoms!

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