What is a phantom pregnancy?
A phantom pregnancy, also known as a false pregnancy or ‘pseudocyesis’, is when a woman believes she is pregnant and experiences the symptoms of carrying a child, without actually being pregnant. A woman suffering from a phantom pregnancy will experience such physical changes as a distended stomach, nausea, tender breasts, irregular or missed periods, and some even report feeling foetal movements.
Why do they happen?
It’s not quite clear why women experience phantom pregnancies. In most cases, there is a strong emotional and psychological connection to a child; it tends to appear in women who are of childbearing age and who are married – and who desperately want children. Others may have experienced trauma related to losing a baby, such as a stillbirth or miscarriage. It’s what Monica Starkman, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, calls an “unhealthy psychological defence mechanism” to help shield women from unbearable maternal grief.
False pregnancies are also more common in developing countries, where having a baby is seen as a necessary part of a woman’s role in society. This pressure placed on women in developing countries, teamed with the fact that there are not many other ways for them to experience a fulfilling life, such as having a good career, can lead to a higher number of phantom pregnancies.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, false pregnancies are officially classed as a ‘somatoform’ disorder, which puts it in a group of psychological disorders which are defined by patients experiencing physical symptoms that can’t be fully explained.
“False pregnancy is normally always down to delusions brought about by psychosis. It often affects women who for whatever reason can’t have a baby but desperately want one and this is the manifestation of that anxiety,” Dr Trudi Seneviratne, chair of the perinatal faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told Mother & Baby.
“The woman genuinely feels like she is expecting, and the brain tricks the woman into feeling the symptoms. It just goes to show how powerful the brain is.”
How common are they?
Cases of false pregnancy tend to be pretty rare – between 2000-2014, there have only been 8 recorded cases. Because of this, doctors are not usually well equipped to deal with them. In 2010, a pregnant woman entered a hospital with her husband and requested a C-section. Doctors attempted to induce labour for two days before moving forward with the C-section, but when the operation began, they soon discovered there wasn’t, and never had been, a baby. A similar thing happened in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 – a woman was convinced she was in labour, and after the doctors were unable to find a heartbeat, rushed her to an emergency C-section to save the baby. But again, there was no baby.
Having said this, they’re not a new phenomenon. In fact, in ancient China, false pregnancies were called “ghost foetuses,” and were believed to have occurred from a woman having sex with a ghost.
How are they diagnosed?
A urine test will check for pregnancy in most cases, but often patients can’t be convinced that they are not pregnant by that alone. In those cases, an ultrasound would also be given.
The problem is, despite the fact that they have been happening for many years, false pregnancies do not happen often enough for any serious amount of research to be put into them. As such, the only thing that medical professionals can suggest in the wake of a phantom pregnancy is therapy. As such, most patients will be given a mental health check-up in order to identify any history of depression or psychosis.