If your partner is pregnant, you’ve likely found yourself on the sidelines, watching, supporting and cheering them on as they experience a whole range of body changes and symptoms.

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But did you know that some nonpregnant partners may find that they, too, experience pregnancy-like symptoms?

It’s called couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy, and it’s very real.

The idea that a nonpregnant partner can feel the effects of pregnancy themselves dates back thousands of years, says Ob/Gyn Catherine Caponero, DO. “Despite the long history and continued occurrence today, healthcare providers don’t really understand the condition very well.”

We talked with Dr. Caponero about what’s known about couvade syndrome, why it happens and what to do if sympathetic pregnancy affects your well-being.

What is couvade syndrome?

Couvade syndrome (pronounced “koo-VADE”) comes from the French verb couver, which means to incubate or sit on eggs. It describes a range of symptoms in the nonpregnant partner that mimic those in pregnancy. That can include things like weight gain, aches, pains and nausea.

“We think couvade syndrome is a psychological response that produces real physical symptoms,” Dr. Caponero says. “Interestingly, it’s not the only example of how having a baby affects nonpregnant partners. Postpartum depression in nonbirthing partners is also common.”

Couvade syndrome is typically limited to a nonpregnant partner — as they tend to be the ones “in the thick of it” day in and day out throughout pregnancy. They’re the ones who are preparing for a child alongside their pregnant partner. And it can cause some changes in them.

No research has suggested that other family members or loved ones experience it.

How common is couvade syndrome?

It’s not clear how many partners experience sympathetic pregnancy. “From our limited data, it appears to be relatively common,” Dr. Caponero reports.

In one older study of 267 couples in New York City, about 20% of nonpregnant partners sought care for couvade syndrome. A 2007 review concluded that symptoms of couvade syndrome may affect up to 97% of nonpregnant partners worldwide.

Causes of couvade syndrome

Researchers believe couvade syndrome is likely connected to the emotional response to preparing for parenthood.

For example, nonpregnant partners who are actively involved in their partner’s pregnancy, labor and delivery are more likely to have elevated feelings of empathy. In turn, they may take on some of their pregnant partner’s physical pain and discomfort.

And while pregnancy is an exciting time, it can also cause feelings of worry and stress for you and your partner. Stress is associated with an increase in the hormone cortisol, which can make you sick. What’s more, stress can bring on decreases in testosterone, which can also affect mood, concentration and energy.

“Couples who went through infertility treatment seem to have an increased risk of couvade syndrome,” Dr. Caponero shares. “In this case, it makes sense to consider that a nonpregnant partner can feel increased levels of both stress and empathy, which can cause physical symptoms.”

Can same-sex partners develop couvade syndrome?

Most reports of sympathetic pregnancy are based on studies in male partners of pregnant females.

But Dr. Caponero says that it’s reasonable to assume that same-sex partners could have a similar response.

More research would need to be done to know for sure, but it’s logical to deduce that the effects of sympathetic pregnancy could extend to any nonpregnant partner, regardless of assigned sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Couvade syndrome symptoms

People who experience sympathetic pregnancy report a wide range of psychological and physical symptoms, often occurring together. These symptoms reflect many of the most common symptoms experienced by pregnant people, as well as physical symptoms related to heightened stress levels.

They include things like:

When does couvade syndrome start?

Couvade syndrome typically begins in the first trimester (the first three months of pregnancy).

Dr. Caponero says, “That’s not surprising because early pregnancy symptoms, such as morning sickness and exhaustion, are understandably difficult for pregnant people. These symptoms can cause relationship changes which may place additional stress on their loved ones.”

How long does couvade syndrome last?

Symptoms tend to go away after the first trimester. But they can return during the third trimester (the final three months of pregnancy).

“This pattern mirrors pregnancy symptoms,” Dr. Caponero points out. “For most pregnant people, the second trimester is when they feel their best.”

After delivery, couvade syndrome usually goes away on its own.

Couvade syndrome treatment

In general, couvade syndrome doesn’t require specific treatment.

But if your symptoms are bothersome, talk to a healthcare provider. They can help to ensure your symptoms aren’t related to a more serious condition.

Your provider can also recommend strategies to help ease symptoms, such as:

  • Exercise, meditation, therapy and other ways to reduce cortisol and stress.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medications to reduce pains and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Preparing for the birth of your baby by reading, attending a prenatal class and getting your home ready. Feeling prepared can help lower your stress levels, which may help lessen your symptoms.

Couvade syndrome can also affect pregnant people. They may have a range of emotions, including:

  • Admiration that you’re trying to understand what they’re going through.
  • Frustration or anger that you’re “stealing their thunder” or trying to make yourself the center of attention.
  • Irritation of feeling let down if your symptoms prevent you from helping them as much as they need.

Everyone’s response to pregnancy and how they manage it is unique. Let your partner know what you’re feeling and ask how it impacts them. Good communication can help you both cope throughout pregnancy and beyond.

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