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What is Pseudocyesis?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 18 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
False Pregnancy Pseudocyesis Labour

Pseudocyesis is the medical term for a false pregnancy. These are now quite rare; only one woman reports a false pregnancy for every 22 000 live births – but they used to be much more common. In the 1940s, before pregnancy tests and ultrasound imaging, one pregnancy in 250 was ‘all in the mind’ of the woman concerned. So why do women think they are pregnant when they aren’t and what is the reason of this dramatic change in the frequency of false pregnancies in the last few decades?

Stress and Hormones

The root cause of a false pregnancy, which can occur in cats and dogs as well as humans, is thought to be hormonal. The trigger, however, is often emotional stress; false pregnancies are most likely in women who either desperately want to have a child, or who have a great fear of getting pregnant at all. The latter group includes girls and women who are the victims of incest and sexual abuse.

Stress can affect the body physically and a positive feedback loop is thought to come into operation, driven by the intense feelings about pregnancy. The level of sex hormones then actually changes, causing the usual symptoms of pregnancy. These can be so convincing that not only is the woman fooled, but her doctor is too.

How Real is a False Pregnancy?

Very real. The woman affected experiences the normal and usual symptoms of the first few months of being pregnant – breast tenderness, morning sickness, weight gain. Her hormones change to resemble those of a pregnant woman and, although it doesn’t happen in all cases, it is possible for a woman with pseudocyesis to test positive on a chemical pregnancy test.

The length of time that the symptoms carry on varies widely but, in some women, they do last for the full nine months. The abdomen swells up, caused by various factors including fat deposition, flatulence, constipation and water retention, so that the woman looks and feels pregnant. She even feels the ‘baby’ moving about. Before the times of ultrasound, these false pregnancies were so convincing that the woman would also go into labour and midwives, nurses and doctors would treat the woman as if she were in labour, often then shocked and more than a little embarrassed that there was no baby at all.

The Reasons for False Pregnancy

In some cases, the reasons are obvious; in one recent case, a middle aged woman went through a full false pregnancy at the same time as her son’s girlfriend was pregnant with her first grandchild. The two women had fallen out and the ‘grandmother’ was desperate to be involved in the birth of the grandchild, and was so upset by the falling out that she transferred all of her emotions onto her own body, simulating a pregnancy. Unusually for today, she did end up in a labour ward, experiencing a full labour right up to the pushing stage.

A False Pregnancy is Not Pretence

In true cases of pseudocyesis, the woman is not pretending to be pregnant; she is completely fooled by the symptoms. The fact that this can be discovered more easily with the technology we have available today explains why most false pregnancies don’t carry on past the early months. If a woman with a false pregnancy is shown an ultrasound scan that just shows her internal organ and no foetus, her symptoms then disappear rapidly as her rational brain knows there is no baby. In the few false pregnancies that carry on to the end of nine months, the woman, for whatever reason, does not have these usual tests, so the lack of a baby is not discovered.

Another recent case, in New York last year, shows that the technology doesn’t always help anyway. One woman was admitted to hospital, apparently in labour and the doctors who examined her realised that the labour was progressing slowly. They hooked her up to a foetal monitor and could detect no heartbeat, so feared that the baby was in danger and rushed her into theatre for an emergency Caesarean. The doctors and the woman were 100% convinced it was necessary but, afterwards, questions were asked and the doctor in charge was disciplined.

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This has happened to me last year.I had stopped my periods and I thought I was pregnant.My body gained a little weight and I felt cravings for food.My breasts were getting swollen and hurt as if I was obtaining milk.I was convinced in my mind that I was pregnant and the strangest thing is that when I kept seeing the number and times of 3:33 all around in my surroundings.I was taken to the hospital since I thought I was pregnant and I started going into labor contractions exactly at 3:33 PM in the afternoon but there was no baby that came out.I felt so bad when I learned that I had no child.It still hurts.
Valerie Jade - 18-Aug-12 @ 3:47 AM
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