Phantom pregnancy is a medical condition known as pseudocyesis (from the Greek words for false and pregnancy) that occurs when a woman displays many of the signs of carrying a child without actually being pregnant.
Although some believe that it must be a myth for a woman to display all the signs of being pregnant without actually having a baby in the womb, a New York Times article lists the frequency of pseudocyesis as 1 to 6 for every 22,000 births.
The ancient medico Hippocrates reported cases of it back around 400 BC and the Tudor Queen Mary I is said to have suffered from it twice. Nowadays, false pregnancy is said to occur more often in developing countries where there is more pressure to have children.
What is a phantom pregnancy?
Pseudocyesis, more commonly known as phantom pregnancy or false pregnancy, occurs when a woman believes she is pregnant, seems to have all the symptoms of pregnancy - such as morning sickness, weight gain and lack of periods - but does not actually have a foetus growing in her uterus.
In one case, Psychology Today reports the “mother” did not even have a womb. The 30-year-old, who came for a pregnancy check-up saying that she could feel the baby fluttering inside of her, was discovered to not only not be pregnant, she'd actually had a hysterectomy two years earlier.
"I showed the woman a scan of her abdomen and explained the facts," University of Nebraska professor Paul Paulman says, "and then I never saw her again. I don't know if she ever accepted the truth."
What are phantom pregnancy symptoms?
Women suffering from false pregnancy can show all the signs of a normally pregnant woman.
“Not only do they fervently believe they are pregnant, but they also have bona fide symptoms to back up their claims, like cessation of menstruation, abdominal enlargement, nausea and vomiting, breast enlargement and food cravings,” says the New York Times, with a few even getting a positive result on a pregnancy test and feeling movement in stomach but not being pregnant.
In fact, “Research has shown that as many as 18% of health professionals, when presented with a woman who has pseudocyesis, also think she is pregnant. This is because she is so sure herself and her symptoms so convincing that they do not suspect otherwise.” reports Huggies.com.
“Every sign and symptom of pregnancy has been recorded in these patients except for three: You don’t hear heart tones from the fetus, you don’t see the fetus on ultrasound, and you don’t get a delivery,” Dr. Paulman says.
What causes phantom pregnancy?
As phantom pregnancy is rare in humans, its cause is hard to diagnose.
Some say it comes from a desperate desire to have a child, or to be involved in the pregnancy of a close relative, such as a grandchild’s birth. Famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who reported on a case where a patient believed she had become pregnant by her former therapist, blamed her false pregnancy on transference.
Australian clinical psychologist Kelly DaCosta is reported as saying in Essential Baby that she believes the mind can trick the body when a woman really, really wants a baby but can’t have one and these women genuinely believe they are pregnant which causes an actual physical result.
Case studies at the University of Michigan show false pregnancy patients have higher levels of estrogen and prolactin that can cause the physical and emotional symptoms of pregnancy. And the stress of wanting to get pregnant can interfere with normal menstrual cycles.
“There is a chicken and egg debate on what comes first - the changes to the female endocrine system or whether the mind believes so strongly that a pregnancy is occurring that it changes the endocrine system," DaCosta says, and some cases “could be a result of possible trauma around previous births.”
“However, because it’s such a rare condition there are very few studies to confirm associations with other disorders."
Dogs, who suffer from a higher rate of phantom pregnancy than humans, also display increased hormone levels, including prolactin, which can cause the belly to swell, milk to be produced and mothering instincts to kick in.
“We get dogs that start guarding their stuffed animals and acting like they’re their babies. It’s amazing how powerful these hormones are and the emotional effects they can have,” vet Chris Cauble is reported as saying in the New York Times article, adding that a shot of testosterone cures the dogs of their symptoms.
How can you stop pseudocyesis?
There is no set way to stop a phantom pregnancy.
Doing medical tests such as a blood test or an ultrasound may help convince the patient that they are not really carrying a child. Then there is the option of counselling, to address the underlying psychological causes.
But as there are not many cases to study, there are no proven treatment options and, as the belief may be so ingrained, it may require going as far as allowing the patient “to give birth”.
What is couvade syndrome?
Related to phantom pregnancy in females is sympathetic pregnancy in males, known as couvade syndrome. It is when some males, usually partners or fathers of the expectant mum, experience the symptoms of pregnancy, like weight gain or even stomach spasms during labour.
Psychology Today reports how a study of 81 expectant fathers found almost half of them put on the pounds towards the end of their partner's pregnancy.
What about phantom kicks?
Another similar condition, as described on Essential Baby, is when a woman feels like a baby is kicking but is not pregnant.
Unlike phantom pregnancies, phantom kicks usually happen to women who have actually been pregnant.
"The first [theory] is that following pregnancy, the uterus can take time to settle," Dr Nick Petrovic, Head of Clinic at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic, says of the two reasons why women feel these 'phantom kicks.' "Therefore, ... as the uterus contracts, a woman may confuse these sensations for kicks."
Midwife Jane Barry gives a second theory as to why mothers experience phantom kicks: "Some women seem to be particularly sensitive to baby's movements during their pregnancy. It's such a distinctive feeling that seems to affect this likelihood of muscle memory and nerve memory long after the baby is born."
But she also thinks that having the bladder and bowel, which are full of nerves, so close to the uterus can be an explanation for movement in the lower abdomen. "The sensation of wind moving through your bowel can be very similar to having a baby moving," she says. "I mean, we've all had that sensation of 'oh my Gosh it almost feels as though I've got a baby in there'."