Men are usually somewhat peripheral during pregnancy. After all, women are the ones who carry the child and endure the process of labor and childbirth. Most men will take advantage of any opportunity to help, and getting up in the middle of the night to head to a drive-thru for french fries and a chocolate shake is often their greatest expression of sympathy for their wives' condition. But for some men, doting is just the beginning.
Imagine your stomach bloating as your wife's grows, or the two of you ill at the same time with morning sickness. Up until recently, the medical establishment has ignored reports of fathers-to-be suffering everything from strange food cravings to backaches and weight gain. But a study in the summer of 2007 went a long way to proving the existence of Couvade syndrome -- or sympathetic pregnancy.
The study conducted at St. George's Hospital, a part of St. George's University in London, England, examined 282 men ages 19 to 55 whose wives were pregnant. A group of 281 men whose wives were not pregnant was used as a control in the study. Researchers found that the majority of the men with pregnant wives displayed a variety of pregnancy-associated symptoms like mood swings and morning sickness.
Stomach cramps were the most commonly reported; one man reported his own labor pains that rivaled his wife's while she was delivering their baby. A few of the men who showed signs of sympathetic pregnancy developed pseudocyesis -- a phantom swollen stomach.
The study found that the symptoms generally followed a similar pattern to the men's wives' pregnancies. The symptoms came on during the early stages of the pregnancy, reached their worst point within the third trimester and cleared up after the wives had given birth. Even more strangely, 11 of the men who sought medical help for their symptoms found that doctors could offer no physical explanation.
Cases of Couvade syndrome (which comes from the French "couver," meaning "to hatch") have been widely documented in different parts of the world. One 1994 study showed that some Thai men also exhibited symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy. Another study, conducted in Italy the following year, says that reports of the incidence of sympathetic pregnancy ranges from 11 to 65 percent [source: Klein]. What's more, a person needn't be a man with a pregnant wife to experience Couvade syndrome. In at least one case documented in the United States, a woman began to show sympathetic symptoms similar to her pregnant twin sister who lived in another city [source: Budur, et al].
But why does it happen? Researchers aren't sure. There are, however, a wide variety of suggestions. It may be a man's anxiety over the impending birth of his child that could cause him to show signs of sympathetic pregnancy. Another theory is that Couvade syndrome may be a man's "statement of paternity" or even a sign of envy toward his wife or feelings of rivalry with the baby [source: Klein].
All of these concepts suggest that Couvade syndrome may be a psychosomatic condition -- a response by the body to a stimulus in the mind. Find out about the mysterious link between mind and body on the next page.