When the mind is pregnant with fancy

Amanda Ngudle

Amanda Ngudle

As we wait in the corridors of the maternity section of Edenvale Hospital my cousin, who is in her third trimester of her pregnancy, points out the woman for me.

She seems like she could also be approaching full-term pregnancy judging by the ballooned size of her stomach and the fatigue on her face. "Nangu uMkhozi," - here comes our friend - whispers one busybody preggy who is clearly amused at the woman's fate.

"Shame, they say she thinks she is pregnant but tests have proved that she is not," adds one blotchy-skinned member of this bored club.

On later investigation, the obstetrician reveals that the woman who has become a spectacle in the maternity ward suffers from a phantom pregnancy.

"It's called pseudocyesis," explains Valerie Archer, a doctor. "This happens when the mind tricks the body into thinking it is pregnant and the body does the same to the mind."

Doctors think this develops when a woman obsesses over pregnancy out of desire or fear.

Queen "Bloody" Mary I of England famously suffered false pregnancy under pressure to continue the royal line.

Archer blames stress for the mind and the body crossing wires.

"Usually people who are too anxious about having a baby might obsess so much that they don't feel their mental health sink into a depression mode, and this kind of stress will manifest in them thinking they are pregnant and even carrying signs that suggest they are expectant."

These women will exhibit signs such as the missing of a period, lactation, weight gain, travel sickness, morning sickness even movement in the womb.

"I was ravenous. I knew by smell my neighbour had lifted the lid off her lamb stew. I had morning sickness and all that you can think of," confides a rehabilitated phantom pregnancy patient.

"It's rare that such patients would carry the signs right through to full term because the scan can pick up the emptiness of the womb despite what pregnancy symptoms they may claim," says Archer.

She doesn't rule out the possibility of patients carrying the false pregnancy for nine months.

"This is because the pituitary gland, which secretes hormones such as prolactin to prepare the body to carry a child, gets into motion the minute the mind concedes the patient is pregnant."

In such a scenario, phantom pregnancies end only when the woman goes into labour and delivers nothing.

Archer says the condition is rare, though, and only happens to one in every 22000 pregnancies. "Some married gay men have had a similar condition because of their strong desire to reproduce."

And if you think you have heard it all, pseudocyesis has a branch called couvade or sympathetic pregnancy, where men experience many of the symptoms of their partners' pregnancies like weight gain, nausea, headache, irritability, backaches and abdominal pain. A study of 81 expectant fathers conducted in the UK found that almost half of them gained weight in the third trimester.

Sympathetic abdominal pains during labour are more common and have been blamed for spouses passing out during delivery of their babies.

Phantom pregnancy patients still in denial need counselling.