Sympathy Pains

What they are, what causes them, and how to cope.

While it may be funny to think of men walking around with their hands on their hips and easing into their chair in the throws of sympathy pains during their partner’s pregnancies, does it really happen? Are sympathy pregnancies real, and if so, what are they, and how many partners experience it?

Believe it or not, sympathy pains, clinically known as couvade syndrome, impact between 20-80% of expectant fathers. Awareness about the dynamic has risen in the last 30 years, along with it, reports. Some health professionals see this as a good thing, as it means that fathers are becoming more involved in the pregnancy journey. At the same time, there is the risk of men not getting the support they need.

So, what are sympathy pains, is your partner “at risk,” and, are they dangerous? Let’s take a look.

Note: for the purposes of this article we will be focusing on the dynamic of fathers-to-be and the prevalence of couvade syndrome. We were unable to locate any research into same-sex couples and sympathy pregnancies but will continue to seek out information on the issue.

What is a sympathy pregnancy? 

Mayo Clinic describes couvade syndrome as “a situation in which otherwise healthy men — whose partners are expecting babies — experience pregnancy-related symptoms.” This “situation” is quite common, although issues of underreporting, under-studying, and under-addressing add to a bit of mystery as to its true nature.

On a physical level, the “common” symptoms we came across include:

  • Appetite changes
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Food cravings
  • Heartburn
  • Muscle aches or inflammation
  • Migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Leg cramps
  • Sensitive nipples or enlarged nipples.

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? If you’ve been pregnant before, they just might!

Sympathy pains can affect partners on a psychological level as well with symptoms such as:

  • Mood swings
  • Stress
  • Crying spells
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Diminished libido

While it is difficult to measure how and how much such ailments are related to a partner’s pregnancy, the fact that partners are reporting the symptoms makes them as “real” as any other condition.

Men who experience sympathy pains will likely experience the initial ailments during the first trimester. It is commonly reported that the symptoms lessen in the second trimester and pick up again in the third. Such a pattern may explain a possible psychological link that we will explore below.

What causes sympathy pains? 

While it may be easy to refer to a father’s experience as “sympathy pains” or “sympathy pregnancy,” fathers-to-be have experiences that are uniquely their own. Financial fears, anxiety over becoming a father, feelings of inadequacy, and concern for their partners are some of the more common issues that a father may cope with as the anticipation for the new family member grows.

The impacts of stress, especially when unaddressed, are well-known. When the fears and concerns that plague a new father are not voiced, acknowledged, or processed they can manifest in some intense ways, some of which have destructive potential. Fathering in a society that does not always encourage men to talk about their emotions can add to the risk.

In addition to the possible psychological connection, many doctors believe that men who are living with their pregnant partner and involved in the preparations for birth experience a dramatic shift in hormones. While hormonal shifts do not occur in tandem with a partner during other times, during a pregnancy a father’s testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol levels fluctuate, leading to various outcomes, both mental and physical.

Whatever the cause, health professionals urge any symptoms men experience during pregnancy to be addressed and taken seriously.

Sympathy weight gain? 

One of the oft-talked of physical symptoms that a man may experience in the lead up to becoming a father is weight gain. It may also be the most visible sign that a father-to-be is experiencing some of the same physical changes as his partner.

So, what gives? Well, the popular consensus is that weight gain during a partner’s pregnancy is due primarily to a change in habits and lifestyle. Consider the following:

  • It is well-known that women experience unusual food cravings during pregnancy, often for foods high in sugar, sodium, or fat. If a pregnant mommy looks as though she is enjoying cold pizza for breakfast or pickle and peanut butter sandwiches all too much, her partner may become tempted to join in the fun, also all too much. Washington Wizards player Bradley Beal and Buffalo Bills player Karlos Williams both attributed fairly significant weight gain to their partner’s cravings.
  • If the female in the relationship was the one who prepared meals even part of the time, she may lose her desire or energy to do so during certain times in her pregnancy. This may lead to more eating out or UberEats. It is well known that individuals are less likely to make nutritionally sound choices when eating outside the home.
  • Later in a woman’s pregnancy and in the early postpartum, a woman is typically advised to consume more daily calories in order to provide nutrition for two. It is sometimes difficult to be as disciplined about portion control when in close proximity to someone who is not.
  • Physical activity may subside during pregnancy as well, especially if a couple typically exercises together.

These changing dynamics must be hard for fathers-to-be to withstand, as weight gain is so common that one study suggests men gain an average of 14 pounds during their partner’s pregnancy.

“It was just pizza and ice cream. That’s all we ate — pizza and ice cream, pizza and ice cream.” -Bradley Beal

“94% of people think pregnancy weight gain on a woman is cute. Exactly 0% think it is cute on a man.” -My Rad Dad

Are there risks associated with sympathy pains? 

As with any physical or psychological matter, there is the risk that the health issues men experience during a partner’s pregnancy can worsen if unaddressed. So, regardless of the reason behind it, a doctor should be consulted if symptoms are at all troubling.

This is just as true for psychological symptoms as the bodily ones. In recent years the impacts of postpartum depression on men and subsequently, their families, has been studied more. Along with it has come a growing awareness about the importance of prevention and treatment to keep fathers mentally healthy and showing up for their partners and children. Just as women are cautioned to speak to someone immediately upon developing depressive or unusual mental unrest during their pregnancy and after, the same goes for men.

And as for the weight gain, well, young children need parents who are tip-top. Staying on top of your physical health becomes increasingly important with children in the mix, so fathers are encouraged to prevent excessive weight gain in the same way that mothers are.

Five ways dads can stay healthy and happy during a partner’s pregnancy

  • Move!
    Physical activity has enormous benefits for the body and mind. Maintaining an active lifestyle as your family grows is also a great way to cope with stress and sets a great example for the little ones. Plus, it will give you much-needed energy once you start chasing after them.
  • Enjoy a hobby
    Picking up or starting a hobby helps to keep the mind active and provides a great opportunity for some “ME” time. Both are important self-care matters for new parents. Bonus points if your hobby involves a sport or food-related interest such as learning to make sushi or creating the perfect BBQ chicken, as your health will benefit as well.
  • Eat foods rich in antioxidants and take a multi-vitamin
    Yup, it’s time to start taking more precautions to ward against illness. Foods high in antioxidants are great for preventing many of the common physical symptoms of sympathy pregnancies and multi-vitamins will help you get the extra nutrients you need during this intense time.
  • Talk it out
    Do you have anyone in your support network, other than your partner, who you can ask about being a new parent and seek advice on being a good father or any fears you may be having? Now may be a good time to join a men’s group or begin seeing a counselor as well. Don’t be afraid to add reinforcements or support to your village.
  • Have fun with food
    Like we mentioned above, a food-related hobby is a healthy way to stay active and channel your energy. Getting savvier in the kitchen is also a really valuable way to help out your partner during her pregnancy and in the months following. Not sure what interests you? Check out these articles by Tasting Table and Good Food for some ideas.

Above all, have fun, get involved, and enjoy this very special time!

For further reading:

Why We Need to Talk More About Male Postpartum Depression

Parenting as a Team 

Simple Nutrition for New Parents