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Male Sympathy Pains:  Pregnancy Myth or an Unpleasant Reality?

Male Sympathy Pains: Pregnancy Myth or an Unpleasant Reality?


Oh, the symptoms of pregnancy: indigestion, bloating, food cravings, weight gain, constipation, nausea, vomiting, backache, irritability…these are enough to make most men happily embrace even the more unpleasant parts of their role in carrying a child: doing more housework, walking on eggshells, and fetching pickles at midnight.

But do men really have such an easy ride during pregnancy? Not necessarily. Some sources suggest that a man who cohabitates with a pregnant woman can experience symptoms of pregnancy, in a phenomenon known as couvade syndrome, or sympathy pains. Although scientific evidence of couvade is sparse, some researchers estimate that up to 80 percent of fathers-to-be experience it.

The Reality of Sympathy Pains: Not a Pregnancy Myth

The testimonies of some new and expectant fathers, along with emerging research, suggest that sympathy pains are not a pregnancy myth.

“My chocolate consumption increased massively.” – New father

Sympathy pregnancy symptom: physical changes

A study of 37 couples, conducted by Swiss psychotherapist and researcher Tiziana Perini, found definite physical and behavioral distinctions between couples who were childless and those who were expecting their first child. The expectant fathers experienced mood swings and appetite and weight fluctuations, whereas the unexpectant men did not. One father interviewed by Swiss television concurs: “My chocolate consumption increased massively.” Perini hypothesizes that men’s hormone levels change during their mates’ pregnancies in order to help men feel more involved in the pregnancy.

“Despite all the nausea, the sleep deprivation and the coping with weight gain, I know that we wouldn't have had it any other way.” – Expectant father

Sympathy pregnancy symptom: emotional changes

Drs. Katherine Wynne-Edwards and Anne Storey, Canadian researchers, examined hormone levels of men at various stages during their partners’ pregnancies. They found that the men had high levels of prolactin, estradiol, and cortisol – hormones responsible for aggression and stress responsiveness. Since these hormones occur in low levels in unexpectant men, Wynne-Edwards and Storey postulate that, in higher levels, the hormones give men the endurance and drive to nurture and protect necessary for the tasks of fatherhood. One expectant father would agree: “Despite all the nausea, the sleep deprivation and the coping with weight gain, I know that we wouldn't have had it any other way.”

What Causes Sympathy Pains?

Psychosomatic Responses

Psychology-based theories suggest that symptoms of couvade may be physical manifestations of a man’s subconscious attempts to adjust to the pregnancy. During his partner’s pregnancy, a man may manifest symptoms in order to (subconsciously) identify with his partner, bond with the fetus, assert his paternity, or reclaim his wife’s attention.

Hormonal Fluctuations

As mentioned, a man’s fluctuating hormone levels during his partner’s pregnancy may contribute to sympathy pains.

Stress - A simpler explanation may be that, like any major life change, preparing for fatherhood is stressful. Sympathy pains may merely be an outlet for that stress.

Circadian rhythms – The changes in a couple’s daily life during pregnancy may disturb a man’s circadian rhythms – his daily biochemical, physiological, and behavioral processes – enough to cause sympathy pains.

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