Can you be ‘pregnant’ without having a baby?

By January 8, 2018Pregnancy

Is this even possible? Yes, shockingly, it’s true. You can be “pregnant” without really being pregnant.

What is ‘false pregnancy’?

Also known as pseudcyesis or phantom pregnancy, this condition happens when you believe that you are carrying a baby, but there is no evidence that this is true. Your body can basically respond in the exact same way as if you were pregnant, but you have no foetus in the womb.

The symptoms are all there: swollen belly, nausea, vomiting, enlarged breasts – and the woman may even feel like there’s movement in the tummy. Your menstrual cycle may even stop for a while, and some women even report feeling contractions!

How does it work?

Doctors aren’t certain why false pregnancy happens. One theory suggests that it’s the desire for a baby that creates the sensation of pregnancy. In other words, your mind “tricks” you into thinking you’re pregnant because you really want to be pregnant.

This belief could be caused by trauma from previous miscarriages, stress, depression, infertility or getting closer to menopausal age. “As unbelievable as it may sound, the mind is actually able to take control and prompt the body to produce believable signs of conception,” explains Dr Nada Stotland from Rush Medical University in America. This means that false pregnancy can last anywhere from a few weeks to the full nine months.

If this sounds too fantastical to be true, let’s look at a very real case. A woman in Brazil experienced this false pregnancy a few years ago – to the extent that she went to the hospital for an emergency caesarean section – only for the doctors to realise she wasn’t pregnant. All reports say that she looked pregnant and was experiencing pregnancy symptoms. Thankfully, the doctors realised it was a false pregnancy before they began surgery!

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In some exceptional cases the false pregnancy is brought on by real medical issues, like an ovarian tumor or a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Is there treatment?

Finding out that you’re not pregnant can be very upsetting. Doctors should break the new gently to the mother, and therapy can help the patient recover from her disappointment. The only way to come to terms with the reality of not being pregnant, is through some psychological support.

It happens to men too!

If phantom pregnancy isn’t frightening enough, experts believe that men can also suffer from this condition. Years ago, researchers at St George’s University in the UK found that husbands of pregnant wives can feel the similar symptoms of pregnancy. They feel and go through all the morning sickness, cramps, back pain and swollen tummies that their pregnant partner experiences. In their case, it’s called Couvade syndrome.

For the most part, phantom or false pregnancies can’t be explained away or easily understood. They are quite rare, but can be hard to treat. Even when presented with a clearly negative pregnancy test, they can refuse to believe the results.

As Dr Stotland explains, “Some patients can be persuaded by the lack of confirming evidence but there are others who just stop coming in for prenatal care. When it becomes clear that there’s no baby, many women will push back the claimed due date to a later time and continue to insist they’re expecting.”