Covade syndrome can be defined as a psychosomatic phenomenon with little or no recognized physiological basis that affects male partners mainly during the first and third trimester of pregnancy and disappears early after the birth of the children. Determining the incidence rates of couvade syndrome has been problematic, as rates as low as 11% or as high as 97% have been reported which is in part attributed to a “Macho” culture in which men do not admit to symptoms to not appear weak. Also socio-demographic factors have been a matter of debate, as studies have reported a greater occurrence of the syndrome in men under 30, men over 30 and highly educated or working class men by different studies respectively. The matter is further complicated by the fact that different studies focused on different symptoms, physiological and psychological.
Psychoanalytic, psychosocial as well as paternal theories have been put forward to explain the origins of Couvade syndrome. From psychoanalytic theories comes the idea that the man is envious of the ability of the woman to conceive children. The unconscious need to experience the woman’s pregnancy then manifests in psychosomatic pregnancy symptoms. Another view argues that the man fears to lose his partner to the baby and this might reactivate old sibling rivalry for the love of the mother. Psychosocial theories point out that men are often marginalized during pregnancy and birth, which might adversely affect the father’s health. Another theory postulates, that the pregnancy symptoms help the man prepare for his new father role in reinforcing the reality of the pregnancy. Paternal theories suggest that the emotional closeness to the unborn child is the cause of couvade syndrome. However, studies investigating the connection between couvade syndrome and either the involvement of the father in the pregnancy or anxiety levels in fathers have not shown clear results.
Physiological mechanisms underlying the syndrome might be connected to hormones, as men reporting Couvade symptoms showed higher prolactin and lower cortisol and testosterone levels.
But human males don’t seem to be the only ones experiencing pregnancy symptoms. Males in two species of monkeys (common marmosets and cotton-top tamarins), who are monogamous and caretakers of children gain up to 20% of their body weight during the pregnancy of their partners. While it is thought that the extra weight prepares the fathers for exhausting sleepless nights or carrying small children, it is not yet understood how the monkeys manage to gain weight.
Although numerous studies on how, where and why Couvade syndrome occurs, there is still not much we really know. Many of the studies are contradictory and the syndrome seems to be hard to pin down. We know that we are dealing with psychosomatic symptoms occurring during pregnancy, but for a deeper understanding, studies with large sample sizes investigating a multitude of physiological as well as psychological factors are needed.
— David Huesmann
Brennan A, Ayers S, Ahmed H, Marshall-Lucette S. A critical review of the Couvade syndrome: The pregnant male. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 2007, 25, 173 – 189
Ziegler TE, Prudom SL, Schultz-Darken NJ, Kurian AV, Snowdon CT. Pregnancy weight gain: marmoset and tamarin dads show it too. Biology Letters, 2006, 2, 181-183.