Men Fall Pregnant Too! A Look at Couvade Syndrome

It's true! Men also get symptoms of pregnancy, anything from tooth ache and back pains to swollen bellies and birthing pains. In fact, a British research firm reported that the average weight gained during pregnancy is 14 pounds -- and that's by the babies' fathers.

The name of this strange sounding phenomenon is "Couvade" and is derived from the French word "Couver" which means "to hatch" in English.

Couvade comes in two forms. In one manifestation it is brought on by the expectant father through his own actions and is associated with a cultural ritual.

In the other form, symptoms arise in a psychosomatic manner (a physical disorder caused by emotional factors). This is the form that is usually found today in the western world and it is much more common than people think. As many as 80% of all expectant fathers will experience Couvade in some form or other.

The Ritual

Couvade was only described scientifically during the nineteenth century when anthropologists observed certain customs performed by men whilst their partners were giving birth. However, the rituals concerned have been reported by various travelers throughout history.

Probably the most amazing thing about Couvade is that various forms of the custom have been practiced by many diverse cultures around the world that have no historical links between them. This could suggest that there is something more basic to humanity (and universal) at it's root rather than anything cultural.

The ritual performed in it's most basic form entails the man taking to his bed at the same time as his partner gives birth. He then proceeds to mimic birth by feigning contractions and 'experiencing' birth pains at the same time as the mother.

This Couvade ritual has been seen throughout history in such diverse peoples as North and South American Indians, Africans, Indians, Basques of Spain and France, Chinese and in Papua New Guinea.

Several variations of the ritual exist

In Papua New Guinea, as soon as pregnancy was discovered, the man would separate himself from the rest of his tribe to build a hut for himself and fill it with food and clothing. He would then remain completely separated from his wife and abstain from social contact with the other men of the village. As the birth approached, he would stay in bed and mimic the pain of childbirth until eventually the woman would enter his new hut and hand over the baby to him.

The Basques of Northern Spain and South-West France, upon learning of the impending birth would take to their beds and complain loudly about labor pains and spasms. This then allowed him to have the same attention from the nurses as his partner was getting.

A similar approach was taken by the Mozetena Indians of North-West Bolivia, however in their case, as soon as the child was born, the mother would deliver the baby to the man and she would go out to work immediately to ensure that food was ready for the evening whilst the man took the reversed role and cared for the child.

The true reasons

The true reasons behind this ritual Couvade are still only guessed at by anthropologists and the cultural beliefs vary between tribes, here is a selection:

  • The man's actions protect the mother and infant from bad spirits by drawing them towards himself if he is screaming louder.
  • It strengthens the bond between father and child
  • The father's simulated birth asserts his paternity.
  • Some believe that the father has a stronger supernatural bond than the mother and so the ritual is used so that the father can guide the child into the world.
  • It is a form of anxiety relief for the man.
  • It makes the father's role in pregnancy more profound than only the sex act nine months previous.

Couvade still exists, but in a different form

Even though ritualistic Couvade has still been reported during the twentieth century, in the most part of the modern western world the practice no longer exists.

Having said that, the term 'Couvade' is applied in medical terms to the psychosomatic condition of sympathetic pregnancy. The man will suffer symptoms when no physiological basis exists.

The manifestation of the condition can vary widely. Anything from simple weight gain to back pains during pregnancy and stomach spasms during birth. As many as 80% of expectant fathers can experience Couvade in some form or other, although only a very few will display the more dramatic symptoms.

Symptoms of Couvade can include:

  • Variations in appetite
  • Weight Gain
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea/Constipation
  • Headaches
  • Toothaches
  • Mood swings
  • Backache
  • Itchy skin
  • Food cravings

It seems that the symptoms are most profound during the third and fourth month then again just as the birth approaches. All symptoms seem to disappear after the birth.

The reasons for the manifestation of Couvade in modern man is of course poorly understood. Many theories exist for the onset of this psychosomatic condition, here are a few:

  • A physical expression of anxiety over the birth.
  • Sympathy/empathy with your partner.
  • A form of pretend sibling rivalry where your partner becomes the sibling that you want to outdo.
  • A method of identifying with the foetus.
  • A display of guilt for having impregnated your partner.
  • An assertion of paternity.
  • Outward appearances of ambivalence towards fatherhood being counteracted by internal anxiety.
  • Jealousy of the mother's ability to carry the child.
  • Jealousy of the mother's birth experience.

As you can see, there are many alternative theories, so pick one that most suits your character.

The best way to fight Couvade is to firstly understand that it really does exist and that it is simply a basic human reaction to the pregnancy. The next thing to do is to try to understand why you are reacting in the way you are. Most men show only very mild symptoms, so unless you feel the baby kicking inside of you or you need pads for your leaking breast milk, then you don't really need to worry.

Couvade is becoming more common in the western world with the social changes that have taken place in the last thirty years that now allow the man to take a more active and caring role in pregnancy. The most common manifestation of Couvade is caused by the deep empathy that you have towards your partner and the changes that she is going through.

Copyright © Mollee Bauer. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.