Couvade syndrome is the name given to sympathetic pregnancy in men – with everything from morning sickness and cravings all the way through to labour pains. But what causes it – and how common is it?
Estimates of how many fathers-to-be experience sympathetic pregnancy symptoms vary from 55% to 80%, so couvade syndrome could be said to be a normal reaction. In fact it’s so accepted in some cultures that it even has traditions and social rituals associated with it. From Bolivia to Papua New Guinea these typically involve the men separating themselves for the duration of the pregnancy or the labour, and experiencing not just similar pains and sensations, but often being given the same attention as their female partner.
One of the reasons that the estimate varies between 55% and 80% is that couvade syndrome covers a very wide range of experiences. It might be that a father-to-be experiences otherwise inexplicable backache, nausea, or weight gain. The changes can be emotional as well as physical, with some men reporting food cravings (not always the same as their partner’s) or mood swings and anxiety about the birth.
Some people believe that it’s a form of jealousy or attention seeking on the part of the father-to-be that explains couvade syndrome. However this wouldn’t necessarily account for it being seen in such a wide variety of different societies, with different ideas about the father’s role. Nor would it account for it being seen in such a wide variety of personalities to cover 80% of fathers-to-be. So what else could be driving this?
One reason for the mood swings might be the hormonal changes that fathers-to-be go through. Once their partner’s pregnancy reaches the second trimester so men’s levels of testosterone begin to drop. This is in order to prepare them for their changing role, and to allow them to nurture and bond with the new child.
Testosterone is only one of a number of hormones to change levels in men while their partner’s are pregnant. Prolactin, the hormone associated with lactation and maternal behaviour in women, also increases in men. This continues after the birth as well, with prolactin levels in men rising by 20% during their early bonding with the new baby.
It seems clear that couvade syndrome may have its roots in the physical changes that fathers-to-be experience. These have evolved to provide them with the best chance of bonding with their pregnant partners and their new children. It also seems that many of its elements may also have a psychosomatic basis. This isn’t to say that they aren’t real – from placebos to Morgellons we can see how the mind can produce very real physical effects in the body.
Finally there are also cultural reasons at play as well. For the Papua New Guinea tribesman confined to a hut and cut off from all other male contact, his sympathetic labour pains would be an expected part of his becoming a father, not just by him but by everyone else. The influence of social norms and conventions is another reason why men might celebrate, or even deny, the symptoms of couvade syndrome.
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