While many couples are able to successfully have children, for others, conceiving can be a challenge. Failed attempts can lead to frustration and dismay. For a woman, it may mean a decline in self-esteem, feelings of guilt, and a lost sense of ‘womanhood’. Men, for their part, may experience a loss of masculine self-confidence, and a feeling of ineptitude.

The couple’s positive outlook on life may be affected, which may lead to feelings of melancholy and worry.

What is a False Pregnancy?

In order to grapple with this trauma, and to protect their psyches from further emotional damage, some women develop what is known as ‘pseudocyesis’ or false pregnancy, a rather rare problem that occurs at a rate of 1 to 6 for every 22,000 births.

This bewildering, largely unknown, yet worrisome condition causes women despondent with the failure of conceiving, to display the symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant: interruption of menstrual periods, nausea and vomiting, enlarged abdomen, changes around the nipples and areolae, feeling fetal movements and even breast milk secretions.

A false pregnancy, at the very minimum, may give some short term hope to a woman and her partner, until the truth is discovered. Some psychiatrists have observed pseudocyesis in women who hopelessly wish to conceive, or who may even greatly wish to be implicated in a close friend’s or relative’s pregnancy.

Surprisingly, this unusual and tragic condition has existed throughout human history; in the third century B.C., Hippocrates observed the occurrence of false pregnancy in twelve women, and Queen Mary Tudor of England is reported to have had two instances of pseudocyesis, that lasted nine months and ended with a false labor.

How Can a False Pregnancy Be Detected?

In the vast majority of cases, a false pregnancy will manifest in women who have suffered great loss; one or more miscarriages or chronic infertility. Their misfortune may provoke jealousy, distress, anger and despondency. A false pregnancy will temporarily alleviate these feelings and replace them with jubilation, relief and contentment.

False pregnancies display most, if not all, of the typical symptoms of a real pregnancy, without actually having a fetus in the womb: stopped menstrual cycle, swollen belly, ‘morning sickness’, food cravings and weight gain.

The patient may even ignore a negative pregnancy test, being utterly convinced that she is really pregnant, or she may insist that test was faulty.

What To Do When a False Pregnancy Is Suspected?

The best way to confront someone suspected of having a false pregnancy is to undertake a definitive test that proves that the woman isn’t pregnant. An ultrasound will clearly indicate that the woman’s uterus doesn’t contain a fetus, and has not grown in size.

Once the evidence is presented to the patient that she isn’t carrying a child, having a good support system from family and friends is essential for her recovery. One’s spouse may also be in denial about the facts, and may aggravate the situation; or he may continue eagerly wishing that the woman get pregnant again, something that could lead to another false pregnancy down the road, resulting in the same emotional pain.

Ways To Help Someone with a False Pregnancy

Psychotherapy can often help the patient deal with the disappointment, loss and grief that she has experienced.

Friends and family need to be cognizant that the woman has suffered a great loss and may be in a very fragile state. They should be especially compassionate and understanding if the woman reveals the truth about her pseudocyesis.

If she doesn’t divulge the reason for her failed pregnancy, her intimate circle should respond to her as they would to any other woman who has suffered a miscarriage; by acknowledging her pain and her sense of loss, bereavement, and sadness. Showing strong emotional support is crucial in helping the patient recover from the effects of pseudocyesis and assisting her in avoiding another false pregnancy in the future.