How Does 'Male Sympathetic Pregnancy' Work?

Illustration for article titled How Does 'Male Sympathetic Pregnancy' Work?

Couvade Syndrome is the name given to the conglomerate of pregnancy symptoms experienced by men when their partners are pregnant. The human mind is a powerful thing, but can a man's brain really convince his body that it's pregnant? And how does the pregnancy end?


Couvade Syndrome's Origins

I was surprised to find that sympathetic male pregnancy had a name — Couvade Syndrome. It sounds like it was named in honor of the extensive and groundbreaking work of someone called Dr. Couvade. In fact, it's a mangled French word coined by EB Tyler, and anthropologist who observed ritual pregnancies acted out by men in several different cultures around the world. "Couvade" comes from the word "couver," meaning "to brood." (Brood as in "brood mare," not brood as in "to have a gloomy obsession.")

In the medical world, Couvade Syndrome isn't an official disease. It is more of an interesting phenomenon. Although doctors have noticed that fathers-to-be can experience weight gain, morning vomiting, heartburn, and restlessness, as well as more random symptoms like toothaches and leg cramps, there hasn't been any agreement as to what causes it. Some doctors maintain that weight gain is normal, since generally the mother and the father live together, and as the mother's eating habits change, so do those of the father. Vomiting in the morning can be easily brought on by being around someone else who is vomiting. The rest of the symptoms can be brought on by stress.

Studies of "Pregnant" Men

Still, the syndrome does describe a common experience shared by many expectant fathers. One medical study discovered that sixty out of the 267 men studied sought medical treatment for some form of Couvade. The syndrome isn't limited to one culture. Although there is no widespread multi-national study of Couvade syndrome, a recent study noted that it pops up regularly in Thai fathers as well as American and European ones.

Illustration for article titled How Does 'Male Sympathetic Pregnancy' Work?

The exact percentage of men who experience Couvade may be exaggerated. Pinning down exactly who and who does not have Couvade syndrome is not easy. The various symptoms, from weight gain to tooth ache, often show up in men with pregnant wives, but they show up at different rates. Does someone who gains a few pounds during his wife's pregnancy and perhaps has some cramping due to stress count, count as a Couvade patient? The symptoms have a long time to show up. Most papers on Couvade agree that symptoms show up in the first trimester and the third trimester. All the symptoms - except back ache - show up significantly more often in men with pregnant wives than those without pregnant wives, but does a tooth ache one month and some vomiting the next constitute Couvade?


And then there are a few studies that are just bizarre. One found that both men and women tend to hold babies to the left, regardless of if they are left-handed or right-handed. Men with sons tend to hold infants a to the right a bit more often than the norm, but men with Couvade are much more likely to hold their newborns to the right, regardless of sex. And men with Couvade who also hold their babies to the right tended to be closer to their own mothers. Make of that what you will.

How to Cure Couvade Syndrome

How is the syndrome resolved? Birth - by the mother - will definitely do it, but for the most part there's no need to go so far. Most of the time the symptoms simply dissipate before birth. Although studies indicate that men with Couvade tend to take more medication during the pregnancy, that medication is meant to control the symptoms, not treat the Couvade syndrome itself. The syndrome is a medical curiosity, but never seems to have been real problem. Occasionally, men will experience sympathetic pains during birth, and will be medicated for them, but there have been no cases of Couvade ever endangering anyone.


Top Image: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

[Via Couvade Syndrome in Expectant Thai Fathers, The Couvade Syndrome and Side Preference in Child Holding, Fatherhood and Emotional Stress, The Couvade Syndrome, The Couvade Syndrome: An Epidemiologic Study, Male Counterpart to Pregnancy, Couvade Syndrome.]



Seneca the Younger(er)

It works like this: You gain 25 pounds or so eating leftovers and discarded food that doesn't taste good to your partner after she takes the first two bites. You lose at least 5 years off your life scrambling around trying to make sure the house is baby-proofed, the nursery is ready, the bills have been paid, and you have cracked open your own head enough to assure yourself (falsely) that you are not going to fuck up this kid by being a lousy parent.

In other words, it works pretty much exactly like it works for a pregnant mother, just without the uterus and fetus.