Everything You Need to Know About Pseudocyesis, or Phantom Pregnancy
Pop culture tells us a person almost always knows they’re pregnant — surprise morning sickness, breast soreness, or a missed period are in-built sensors that confirm a person’s intuition of a possible pregnancy. But what if that intuition is wrong? Or worse, what if the body is sending the wrong signals?
It’s a condition called pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy, which research shows is common in developing countries, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Psychosomatic in nature, phantom pregnancies are common in countries, like India, that place undue importance on a person’s ability to reproduce, linking their worth to their womb.
What is a phantom pregnancy?
Pseudocyesis is a false pregnancy, in which a person experiences the symptoms of pregnancy — weight gain, morning sickness, a growing belly, and backache — without actually being pregnant.
What are the signs of a phantom pregnancy?
A phantom pregnancy starts out like any other pregnancy — missed period, morning sickness, more frequent urination, sore and swollen breasts. As the ‘pregnancy’ progresses, the person will also start feeling their belly grow, feel fetal movement, and in some cases, might also experience labor pains at the end of the ‘gestation’ period. The only difference between how a phantom pregnancy and a real pregnancy looks on the outside is that the former doesn’t culminate in a baby.
What causes a phantom pregnancy?
Research shows phantom pregnancies are common in cultures where there’s strong familial and societal pressure on people to have babies. The most common reason a person could develop a phantom pregnancy is their desire to have a baby, especially if they can’t have one, for reasons such as infertility or menopause. But the desire to have a baby could also stem from traumatic past experiences related to pregnancy, such as miscarriage or stillbirth, or the loss of a child.
The desire to have a boy is also a documented reason for phantom pregnancies in patriarchal societies — especially if the person has only birthed girls in the past, which can be a traumatizing experience for the birth-giver in such cultures.
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Another documented reason for phantom pregnancy, according to researchers, is the treatment for an underlying mental health issue, particularly psychosis. Anti-psychotic medications used to treat psychosis in women, for example, raise prolactin levels in their bodies. This can result in breast swelling or tenderness, galactorrhea (milky nipple discharge), or amenorrhea (absence of menstruation). The side-effects of anti-psychotic medication can mimic that of a pregnancy, which is why phantom pregnancies are common in women who suffer from psychosis.
While pseudocyesis can occur in cisgender men (called sympathetic pregnancy, it typically occurs when their partner is pregnant), it’s more common in people with the ability to give birth.
How can a phantom pregnancy be diagnosed?
As phantom pregnancies look exactly like real ones, the process of diagnosing one is also similar to that of diagnosing a real pregnancy. A pelvic exam, urine analysis, and an ultrasound can determine if a person does indeed have an implanted embryo in their uterus.
How can a person experiencing a phantom pregnancy be treated?
Psychological or psychiatric help is the only way to treat a person experiencing a phantom pregnancy. “Those who think and feel like they are pregnant are also feeling that same excitement for the next nine months and beyond. They are looking forward to raising their baby in their home – watching him or her have their first bath, take their first steps and grow like a typical kid,” according to the American Pregnancy Association. “Treating a false pregnancy is very difficult since it is a delicate situation.” Doctors need to provide “psychological therapy and emotional support as these are the only way to treat pseudocyesis.”