Whether you’re trying to get pregnant, or trying to not get pregnant, the issue of baby-growing often feels overly fraught with extreme ups and downs.
A phantom pregnancy could be the last thing you want right now.
Phantom pregnancy is yet another of the complicated elements of reproduction that make one realize how very un-black-and-white the whole process is.
You may have heard phantom pregnancy referred to by various terms—false pregnancy, fake pregnancy, hysterical pregnancy (probably our least favorite term), pseudopregnancy, or, its scientific name, pseudocyesis.
(Not sure about the pseudocyesis pronunciation? It’s “soo-doe-sigh-eh-sis”)
But while the terms may sound familiar, this chapter seems too often left out of the book about the birds and the bees.
In this article: 📝
- What is pseudocyesis?
- How do you know if you have a phantom pregnancy?
- How long do phantom pregnancies last?
- How do you know if you’re having a phantom pregnancy?
- What causes a phantom pregnancy?
- How common is a phantom pregnancy?
- How do you get rid of a phantom pregnancy?
What is pseudocyesis?
So let’s start with a phantom pregnancy (or pseudocyesis) definition:
Phantom pregnancy describes the event where you show pregnancy symptoms—except the most definitive one: the existence of a growing embryo gestating inside of you.
It is understood as an interaction between the reproductive system and the brain, where a bunch of mixed-up signals start to produce hormonal reactions that make pregnancy symptoms, but you’re not pregnant.
Essentially, somehow your mind tricks your body into thinking you are pregnant when you’re not.
And, the reality is:
- If pregnancy is something you want in your life, a phantom pregnancy is distressing.
- If pregnancy is not something you want in your life, a phantom pregnancy is distressing.
So, before we go any further to look at the symptoms and causes of a false pregnancy, let’s stop for an all-important breather: it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.
It’s okay (and recommended) to seek medical advice.
And it’s okay to reach out to your loved ones for help.
How do you know if you have a phantom pregnancy?
The symptoms of a phantom pregnancy are vast and may include:
1. Phantom pregnancy belly
Yup, this one can be pretty discombobulating.
Your tummy starts to expand and look like all things pregnant—but what’s happening inside does not match with what it looks like on the outside.
2. Unexpected weight gain
This can go hand-in-hand with phantom pregnancy belly, but you can experience one without the other.
3. Skipped (or irregular) periods
A skipped period is usually one of the earlier signs of pregnancy, so it makes sense as a phantom pregnancy symptom, too.
4. Morning sickness
“Morning sickness” isn’t really a term we like using—after all, during pregnancy (or a phantom pregnancy), “morning” sickness can occur at any time of day.”
Pregnancy nausea is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy, and could rear its ugly head during a false pregnancy with:
- Nausea before or after eating ‒ or even when you’re not eating at all
- Stomach cramps
- Hunger pangs
- Aversions to foods, smells, or tastes
5. Tender breasts
Sore breasts can also be an early pregnancy symptom and a phantom pregnancy symptom, or they could feel tingly or achy.
6. Phantom kicks
Of course, phantom kicks can be particularly distressing and really puts the phantom into phantom pregnancy.
What causes phantom kicks?
You can experience phantom kicks (or quickening) in early pregnancy, post-pregnancy, or even with no pregnancy at all.
Sometimes it’s due to your nerves hyping up every movement around your abdomen, making even a few stomach bubbles or bouts of gas feel like phantom kicks.
But honestly? The science is still out as to what causes the sensation of phantom kicks.
Can phantom kicks be a sign of pregnancy?
Phantom kicks in and of themselves aren’t really a sign of pregnancy.
But some mamas on Peanut have reported feeling phantom kicks soon after finding out they were pregnant—long before baby even has legs to kick!
How long do phantom pregnancies last?
The duration of symptoms of a phantom pregnancy varies from person to person.
They can last for a few days or weeks, or go on to imitate the entire 9-month duration of a pregnancy.
For some women, they can last for as long as a few years.
If phantom pregnancy is anything, it is complicated.
It is important to note that a false pregnancy is not the same as a delusion of pregnancy, which may occur in women struggling with severe psychosis.
While the research into false pregnancy is relatively young, understanding more about it can help those who are impacted by it better deal with this complex experience.
Do phantom pregnancies test positive?
Sometimes, yes. Phantom pregnancy positive test has been known to happen, although they are rare—less than 1% of all pregnancy tests.
However, this is not typically the case, as without a viable pregnancy, no beta-hCG is being produced, which means no positive line should be triggered.
There can be different reasons why a phantom pregnancy would test positive:
- Medications affecting your hCG levels
- Recent pregnancy loss
- Medical conditions affecting your reproductive system
- Taking pregnancy test incorrectly
However, the majority of the cases of pseudocyesis or phantom pregnancies will result in negative pregnancy tests.
How do you know if you’re having a phantom pregnancy?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of early or late pregnancy, the only way to tell that it’s a phantom pregnancy is by taking a pregnancy test to make sure.
If the test comes back negative, it’s likely a phantom pregnancy—although it’s best to check with a doctor, along with a few more pregnancy tests, just in case.
If the test comes back positive, then you may be pregnant.
Or it could still be a pseudo-pregnancy. Again, checking in with your doctor and doing several pregnancy tests (if you can) is the best bet.
The best way to know you’re definitely pregnancy is through a blood beta-hCG test or an ultrasound scan later on in your pregnancy.
What causes a phantom pregnancy?
Firstly, there is no definitive answer to what causes phantom pregnancy.
The source of it seems as varied as the people that experience it.
However, certain commonalities give us some insight. Some of the underlying causes may include:
Many of the causes of phantom pregnancy appear to be linked to psychological trauma around motherhood:
- Wanting or not wanting a baby: Whether this is related to an intense desire to become pregnant or not to become pregnant, the disjunct between the want and the reality seems to send confusing messages to the endocrine system. Phantom pregnancies are also more common in cultural environments where a lot of pressure is put on women to conceive.
- Struggling with infertility or miscarriage: When the whole pregnancy thing starts to become soaked in soreness, phantom pregnancy may result as your body’s way of responding to intense feelings around this particular aspect of your life.
- Losing a child: The pain of this is no doubt unfathomable and a phantom pregnancy could be the body’s way of responding.
- Recovering after an operation: Some women have experienced phantom pregnancies when healing from surgery on their reproductive organs.
Experiencing hormonal fluctuations due to bodily changes such as perimenopause can possibly result in false pregnancy.
Certain medications that affect your hCG levels or other hormones could also trigger a phantom pregnancy.
Pelvic and abdominal tumors, as well as bloating caused by a wide number of medical conditions, could be at the heart of a phantom pregnancy.
A phantom pregnancy could be an early sign of something else, which is why it’s always best to check in with your healthcare provider.
How common is a phantom pregnancy?
While there’s no doubt it exists, phantom pregnancy is incredibly rare. It’s said to affect only about 1-6 in 22,000 pregnant women in the US.
But while pseudocyesis is rare, it shouldn’t be discounted, as it can be a real source of suffering for the person going through it.
The interesting thing is that men can actually experience symptoms of a phantom pregnancy too.
This is referred to as Couvade syndrome, or sympathetic pregnancy, and typically manifests—both physically and psychologically—in fathers of the babies of expectant mothers.
Interestingly, some fathers may empathetically experience postpartum depression.
Wow. Nature is really something.
How do you get rid of a phantom pregnancy?
What can you do if you think you might have a phantom pregnancy?
Well, the first thing is to seek professional advice from a healthcare practitioner.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. This is difficult. Seriously difficult.
And it’s okay to be feeling some pretty huge feelings right now. But, with the right help, you can get through this.
So that’s all there is to know about phantom pregnancy and pseudocyesis.
Think you might have a phantom pregnancy? If you’re comfortable, why not share your story with our other mamas and mamas-to-be on Peanut?
You’re not alone—there are plenty of phantom pregnancy stories from our community of women on Peanut.