PREGNANCY PARENTING

All About Phantom Pregnancy

5 min read
All About Phantom Pregnancy

Phantom pregnancies are not an urban myth.

Although phantom pregnancy is one of the more unusual conditions which can occur for women, it is in fact a rare condition also known as pseudocyesis or ‘false pregnancy’.

It is also known to occur in men, particularly with sensitive men who, when their wives or daughters are pregnant, experience similar symptoms as they do. Weight gain, vague aches and pains, abdominal swelling and moodiness are the most common symptoms experienced.

When a woman is experiencing a phantom pregnancy, it’s not only the woman with who believes they are pregnant. As many as 18% of health professionals, when presented with a woman who has a phantom pregnancy, also believe she is pregnant. Generally, this is because the woman is so sure of her pregnancy and her symptoms are convincing.

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How can Phantom Pregnancy happen?

In a phantom pregnancy, the woman’s mind convinces her body that a baby is present. Many, and sometimes all of the classic symptoms of pregnancy are present, including nausea, tender breasts, absence of menstruation and even an enlarged abdomen. So in addition to feeling pregnant, these women actually appear to be as well.

A combination of the strength of the woman’s beliefs and her interpretation of physical symptoms as being due to pregnancy, her endocrine system and pituitary gland are tricked into secreting pregnancy specific hormones.

Why does phantom pregnancy happen?

phantom pregnancies

A combination of physical as well as emotional factors all contribute, where a loop between the body’s pregnancy ‘symptoms’ helps to fuel the woman’s belief that she is pregnant. These, in turn, play a role in the secretion of hormones that serve to sustain the phantom pregnancy.

The relationship between hormones and psychology is well known, and phantom pregnancy is a classic example of this link. The abdomen swells due to weight gain and a build-up of intestinal gas.

Exactly why phantom pregnancy occurs is still a mystery. Most commonly it emerges in women who are desperate to conceive and long for a baby. Some women feel an obligation to have a baby and do what is expected of them. In turn, they convince themselves and others that they are pregnant.

Who is more likely to have a phantom pregnancy?

Women who are undergoing fertility assistance, who have previously lost a baby due to miscarriage or stillbirth, or who have been advised they will never have children are more likely to develop a phantom pregnancy. Also, women who have never married or who are going through menopause are more at risk.

Women who have some particular medical conditions can also be more likely to have a phantom pregnancy. Those with ovarian problems, ectopic pregnancy and/or who are morbidly obese can have symptoms.

Oddly, women who have a very strong wish to be involved in a family member or friend’s pregnancy can also develop a phantom pregnancy. They become so absorbed by the experience that they intensely internalise the experience and convince themselves that they are pregnant as well.

Is Phantom Pregnancy a Mental Health Issue?

Phantom Pregnancy is different to a ‘Delusion of Pregnancy’.  A delusion of pregnancy occurs when the patient is mentally unstable and believes she is pregnant no matter the evidence or reasoning saying otherwise.

How Common is Phantom Pregnancy?

Phantom Pregnancy or ‘Pseudocyesis’ isn’t common but there have been some documented cases of phantom pregnancies in history.

According to the News Medical Life Sciences, phantom pregnancy occurs in about 6 in 22,000 pregnancies.

Bloody Mary (Queen Mary Tudor)

Queen Mary Tudor was the daughter of King Henry VIII and half sister to Queen Elizabeth the First (Queen Mary reigned before Queen Elizabeth).  Queen Mary was married to the often absent King of Spain at the age of 38. Being a Queen, she was expected to produce an heir.

But that pressure, together with her advanced age (for the time) meant that becoming pregnant would be an uphill battle.  

Queen Mary experienced two phantom pregnancies, one in which she reported that she could feel the baby moving in her womb.  Of course, the babies never eventuated, and in fact, Queen Mary died from Ovarian Cancer which formed a large growth that extended her stomach.  As she had no living heirs, the crown was then passed to Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Mary of England (Mary Tudor) - UNT Digital Library

Phantom Pregnancies are Devatating

For women who are convinced they are pregnant but are actually not, being informed of this can be devastating. Sensitive and understanding counselling is very important and family support is as well. For women who are very keen to conceive, fertility support may also be necessary.

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Have you ever heard of, or experienced, a Phantom Pregnancy?

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