What To Know About Pseudocyesis (False Pregnancy)

pregnant woman
Lauren Bates / Getty Images.

 Lauren Bates / Getty Images

Almost all of us have had moments where we thought we were pregnant when we actually weren’t. Maybe your period was a few days late, and you just had “that feeling” that a pregnancy was underway.

Maybe you did in fact skip a period and thought you were experiencing some signs of pregnancy. You may have even had some signs of early pregnancy, such as nausea or sore breasts.?

Usually, though, your suspicions (or hopes) are easily answered by the coming of your period or a negative pregnancy test. This sort of thing is common for most women to experience a few times in their childbearing years: a hunch that they are pregnant—and maybe even a few light pregnancy symptoms—only to find out it wasn’t true.

But, there is another phenomenon where a woman experiences the signs of symptoms of pregnancy in a much more pronounced way, with sometimes obvious, pronounced physical signs of pregnancy, including missed periods, a growing abdomen, and even baby kicks.

This phenomenon is referred to as pseudocyesis, also known as false pregnancy, or phantom pregnancy.

It’s a relatively rare, but serious condition, where a woman displays many of the symptoms of pregnancy, and believes wholeheartedly that she is pregnant, but she is indeed not pregnant at all.

What Is Pseudocyesis?

Pseudocyesis is different from a mental health disorder characterized by delusions of pregnancy, as may be found in a person suffering from schizophrenia or psychosis. Although psychological mechanisms may be at play in the phenomenon of pseudocyesis—and may actually cause some of the symptoms— pseudocyesis is primarily characterized by physical symptoms of pregnancy in a person who is not actually pregnant.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes pseudocyesis as: “A false belief of being pregnant that is associated with objective signs and reported symptoms of pregnancy, which may include abdominal enlargement, reduced menstrual flow, amenorrhea, subjective sensation of fetal movement, nausea, breast engorgement and secretions, and labor pains at the expected date of delivery.”??

In other words, a person who suffers from pseudocyesis not only falsely believes they are pregnant, but they must also actually exhibit physical signs of pregnancy.

How Common Is Pseudocyesis?

According to The Indian Journal of Psychiatry, pseudocyesis is very rare.?? Although it has been known to have occurred since ancient times—it was described by Hippocrates in 300 B.C.—nowadays it is not commonly found in the general population.

Here are some facts to know about the incidences of pseudocyesis:??

  • In the general population, pseudocyesis occurs in about 1-6 out of every 22,000 births
  • Africa has a higher prevalence, with 1 in every 160 women who experience infertility showing signs of pseudocyesis
  • Most instances of pseudocyesis occur in women of childbearing ages, between the ages of 20-44 years
  • Pseudocyesis has been known to occur in women of all ages, including the very young and the very old
  • Rarely, pseudocyesis occurs in men: this is called “sympathetic pregnancy” or couvade
  • 80% of people who experience pseudocyesis are married
  • You can experience pseudocyesis more than once in your life

Causes

Experts are not totally sure what causes pseudocyesis. It is often thought of as a psychosomatic condition, where the belief or hope that you are pregnant causes your body to produce pregnancy symptoms.

But in some cases, there are other medical conditions that may cause pregnancy symptoms to be experienced.

Here are some of the reasons a person might experience symptoms of pseudocyesis:

  • An intense desire to become pregnant after miscarriage or other pregnancy loss may cause a hormonal imbalance which causes pregnancy symptoms to appear
  • Abdominal distention from other physical factors such as weight gain, gas, or tumors, in combination with psychological delusions of pregnancy, may cause a woman to believe she is pregnant
  • Other physical and hormonal factors—such as pituitary tumors or ovarian/uterine cysts or growths—along with a desire to become pregnant, might cause a woman to experience pseudocyesis

Factors that might make a mother more likely to experience pseudocyesis include:

  • A history of depression or mental illness
  • A history of pregnancy loss
  • A history of infertility
  • Lower socioeconomic status (though women of all socioeconomic statuses experience pseudocyesis)
  • History of trauma, sexual abuse, or spousal abuse

Symptoms

Pseudocyesis is characterized by the belief that you are pregnant, combined with classic symptoms of pregnancy, including:

  • Loss of menstrual period
  • Nausea
  • Morning sickness and vomiting
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sore breasts
  • Physical changes to nipples and areola
  • Abdominal distention
  • Weight gain
  • “Quickening” and sensations of baby kicks
  • Labor pains and feelings of contractions

These symptoms can last for a few weeks or for the entire duration of a typical pregnancy (nine months).

Testing and Diagnosis

Ultimately, the only way to know for sure if someone is experiencing pseudocyesis is to administer a pregnancy test or ultrasound. Usually, this would be in the form of a test that checks the amount of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in one’s blood or urine. The most definitive test to check for pregnancy would be an ultrasound that checks for the presence or absence of a developing fetus.

If it is shown through testing that a woman is not in fact pregnant, yet she believes she is and also is experiencing symptoms of pregnancy, she will likely be diagnosed with pseudocyesis. If the absence of a pregnancy is confirmed, but concerning physical symptoms linger, other testing might be administered to rule out other medical issues, such as hormonal imbalances or tumor growth.

In most developed countries, pseudocyesis is rare simply because when a woman suspects she is pregnant, she goes to a gynecologist who can administer tests to tell her whether she is experiencing a viable pregnancy.

Still, in areas of the country where medical care is harder to secure, or areas of the world where women aren’t seen until later in their pregnancies, pseudocyesis is more common.

However, pseudocyesis may be common among women who are experiencing psychological disturbance, regardless of their socioeconomic status or access to gynecological care.

Treatment

For some people experiencing an episode of pseudocyesis, testing results or an ultrasound that tells them they are not pregnant is enough to make many of their pregnancy symptoms diminish, especially if they are not caused by other medical issues.

But for many people with pseudocyesis, even proof that they are not pregnant doesn’t convince them. In this case, they may need to be under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist. In some cases, psychotropic drugs, in combination with psychotherapy, may be helpful.

Helping a Loved One

It’s important to understand that pseudocyesis is a very complex issue. The person who is experiencing pseudocyesis usually has a strong belief that they are pregnant, and it can be hard to argue with someone who is actually experiencing symptoms of pregnancy.

When it is confirmed that what that person is experiencing is not an actual pregnancy, the grief that comes next may be intense. Sometimes it will be virtually impossible to convince someone who has experienced pseudocyesis that they are not pregnant.

If you are caring for a loved one who has experienced pseudocyesis, it’s important to be gentle. Very often, pseudocyesis stems from the trauma of having lost a pregnancy or having experienced infertility.

Caring for someone who has pseudocyesis must involve a strong element of compassion, and a delicate balance of validating that person’s feelings, and also acknowledging the facts of the situation.

Pseudocyesis is treatable and can resolve, but it may be painful for the person who is experiencing it as well as their loved ones. So be kind—and also encourage your loved one to seek professional help when the situation warrants it.

A Word from Verywell

If you thought you were pregnant, and experienced symptoms of pregnancy, only to find out that you were not pregnant, you may feel emotionally crushed. You may feel confused and numb. These are all normal reactions to this experience. You truly believed that what you were experiencing was pregnancy, and you may have been aching for a child. So you may be experiencing a profound sense of loss.

If you were diagnosed with pseudocyesis, false pregnancy, or phantom pregnancy, you may not only feel upset by the reality that you are not pregnant, but scared or ashamed that this happened to you. You may wonder what is wrong with you, and you may be afraid to seek the help that you need at this time.

There is nothing to be ashamed of. There are many reasons why you may have experienced a false pregnancy. Be sure to explore these reasons with your doctor, and get whatever medical tests your doctor believes are necessary. If your doctor recommends therapy, it’s important to follow through and make an appointment with a therapist or counselor. Your mental health is important, and you deserve compassionate care right now.

Most of all, remember that you are not alone, and with proper care, you will feel like yourself again before you know it.

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  1. Tarín JJ, Hermenegildo C, García-Pérez MA, Cano A. Endocrinology and physiology of pseudocyesis. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology. 2013;11:39. doi:10.1186/1477-7827-11-39.

  2. Ibekwe PC, Achor JU. Psychosocial and cultural aspects of pseudocyesis. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):112-116. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42398.

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