What Is A Phantom Pregnancy?

Pseudocyesis, commonly referred to as a phantom pregnancy or false pregnancy, refers to a situation in which although the individual is not physically carrying a baby, clinical signs and symptoms like tender breasts with secretions, abdominal growth, delayed menstrual periods, fetal movement and nausea linked with pregnancy may arise. An extremely rare situation (only 550-600 cases have been reported in the English medical literature since the 1700s), the rates are higher in cultures where motherhood and fertility are overtly emphasized, like those in Africa where the rate is estimated to be somewhere near 1 in 160 pregnancies. It occurs not only in women but also trans men and non binary people. Linked to pressure put on women’s fertility, here’s a glance at this psychological phenomena.

Source: iStock

The symptoms

As mentioned previously, a phantom pregnancy is most common in women who are married. Throughout history, married women have been expected to give birth to children, and as such, fertility becomes an integral factor of women’s identity worldwide, somewhere more than others. The symptoms usually last for a few weeks, usually until people go to the doctor’s to confirm the pregnancy. Once it is confirmed that there is no pregnancy, the physical symptoms usually disappear. But in case a doctor isn’t consulted, as is in the case of many places with poor access to sufficient healthcare, the symptoms continue to persist till 9 months and in some cases, even beyond that for years. Most of the women who experience the issue are married, usually between the ages of 20 to 44, although people as young as 6 years old and as elderly as 79 years old have been reported to have had a false pregnancy.

The roots of the issue

The exact cause of the issue remains a mystery, most of what we know of the scenario stems from case studies due to the rarity of the situation. But professionals believe that the mind tricks the body into believing that it is pregnant. Many people who have pseudocyesis have a strong desire to become pregnant or a strong dread of being pregnant. It’s possible that a desire for pregnancy stems from a history of infertility, miscarriages, or the loss of a child. And the majority of these are women who are depressed, ranging from mild to severe. 

These psychological issues can result in a lack of hormones, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain, as well as increased sympathetic nervous system activity. Due to a lack of inhibition, pituitary hormones such as GnRH, LH, FSH, and Prolactin are raised when dopamine and norepinephrine levels are low. Females’ ovaries are stimulated by the hormones LH and FSH. 

Amenorrhea, or the cessation of the menstrual period, is the result of these hormonal alterations. Breast engorgement and milk production are caused by increased prolactin levels. The sense of fetal movements and feelings of labor pains at the predicted delivery date can be explained by increased sympathetic system activation. The diaphragm’s chronic contraction is thought to be the main cause of abdominal edema or the swelling of the belly. The swelling is usually a build up of gas, urine, feces and fat. When patients learn they are not pregnant, the muscle relaxes and the abdomen returns to its natural size.

Source: Bright Side

How can a phantom pregnancy be treated?

The most effective strategy to end a false pregnancy is to provide the person confirmation that they aren’t pregnant using imaging tools such as an ultrasound.There are no universal recommendations for treating false pregnancies with medicines because they aren’t regarded to have a direct physical cause. Medication may be administered if a person is suffering symptoms such as menstrual irregularity. False pregnancies appear to be more common in women who are experiencing mental distress. As a result, they should be under the supervision of a psychotherapist.


The prevalence in society

The concept of a false pregnancy isn’t new. Hippocrates, in 300 B.C., is credited with writing the first account. Queen Mary Tudor of England is a well-known historical figure who had pseudocyesis. When made aware of this, it is reported that she believed that the reason God hadn’t made her pregnant was because she did not sufficiently punish the heretics. In the United States, cases of pseudocyesis have decreased dramatically during the previous century.

In the 1940s, about one out of every 250 pregnancies resulted in a fake pregnancy. The number of incidents per 22,000 births has dropped to between 1 and 6.


The average age of a woman who has a phantom pregnancy is 33 years old. More than two-thirds of women with pseudocyesis are married, and almost one-third have been pregnant at least once. Women who have been through incest may be at a higher risk of having a phantom pregnancy.

False pregnancies have become uncommon in nations where accurate pregnancy tests are widely available. Some cultures associate a woman’s worth with her capacity to conceive, and pseudocyesis is more common in these areas.

It should always be kept in mind that the root cause of a phantom pregnancy lies in the value placed by society on the intrinsic relation between womanhood, maternity and marriage and is the manifestation of these issues. People who deal with phantom pregnancies must be dealt with extreme care, seeing as to how sensitive of an issue a pregnancy can be.

Cover Illustration: Flo Health


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