A phantom pregnancy is a condition affecting women who aren’t pregnant but experience the symptoms of pregnancy.
Phantom pregnancy is also known as ghost pregnancy, false pregnancy and hysterical pregnancy.
The clinical term is pseudocyesis, which comes from the Greek pseudes meaning ‘false’ and kyesis meaning ‘pregnancy’.
Do you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing a phantom pregnancy?
Below you’ll find some possible symptoms and causes to help you to figure out what’s going on with your body.
You’ll also find out what to do if you’re experiencing a phantom pregnancy.
#1: What is a phantom pregnancy?
A phantom pregnancy is a condition that causes some or all of the symptoms of pregnancy. The only difference is there isn’t a baby.
The condition can affect women who don’t have a uterus or have already gone through menopause; it can even affect men.
However, phantom pregnancy mostly occurs in women of reproductive age (20-44 years) and who are married. Both single and multiple cases of phantom pregnancies have been seen.
#2: How common is pseudocyesis?
Pseudocyesis isn’t common but it has been documented throughout history. Hippocrates recorded cases of twelve women who believed themselves to be pregnant. Mary Tudor, Queen of England in the 1500s, appears to have experienced two phantom pregnancies during her reign.
Phantom pregnancies aren’t widely reported in western medical literature. An estimated 1-6 cases occur in every 22,000 births.
There is a much higher rate in Africa, however, where they occur in 1 out of 344 pregnancies. Experts say there is strong case to argue that the cause of phantom pregnancy is psychological, particularly in countries where there is a heavy cultural emphasis on fertility.
#3: False pregnancy causes
Experts also believe there’s a strong mind-body feedback loop responsible for phantom pregnancy.
A recent study found 40% of physicians believe in the mind-body connection. This means the mind alone could be responsible for a false pregnancy.
A phantom pregnancy might occur if a woman wants a pregnancy so intensely, her body interprets the desire as a reason to produce elevated hormones and then pregnancy symptoms.
The most likely reasons for a false pregnancy are:
- Multiple miscarriages
- Strong desire for pregnancy (particularly if there are cultural expectations around fertility)
- Fear of not experiencing pregnancy
- Changes in the body, such as menopause
- Sympathy symptoms for somebody else who is pregnant.
All of these things can trick the mind into believing the body is pregnant even though there’s no baby.
In fact, false pregnancy doesn’t only affect women. Men can also experience this phenomenon, in sympathy with their pregnant partners.
#4: Phantom pregnancy symptoms
Symptoms of a false or phantom pregnancy are the same as real pregnancy symptoms. Check out this list of early pregnancy symptoms for more information.
Symptoms can include:
- Morning sickness
- Full or tender breasts
- Uterine cramping
- Weight gain
- Missed, or light, period
- Labour pains.
#5: Phantom pregnancy belly
In extreme cases of pseudocyesis, the belly grows larger, as it would if the pregnancy were progressing and there was a baby.
Some women even experience the popping out of the belly button as the belly grows.
#6: Signs you’re not having a phantom or hysterical pregnancy
Just for reassurance, you might be wondering whether a phantom or hysterical pregnancy has all the signs of a pregnancy. How do you know you’re not having one?
First, you’re likely to have a positive pregnancy test. Although a phantom pregnancy has most of the physical signs of pregnancy, you certainly wouldn’t have a positive pregnancy test.
Vaginal bleeding is also a potential sign that a pregnancy has occurred but has possibly ended in miscarriage. This can be distressing but a blood test will look for the presence of pregnancy hormones to confirm. See your doctor for support and advice if this is the case.
#7: Am I having a phantom pregnancy?
If you’ve had a positive pregnancy test, the most likely answer is that you’re pregnant. It’s best to see a doctor for confirmation of the pregnancy.
If you’re having all, or many, of the symptoms of pregnancy but pregnancy tests are negative, then consider where you are in your cycle.
It’s possible to be pregnant but still test negative. Check out this article for an idea of how early is too early to test and get an accurate result.
If you’ve missed your period or you’re even further along in your cycle, and still getting a negative test but are having pregnancy symptoms, then you might need to be a little patient.
Every woman’s body is different. Your friends could test early and get a positive. Your positive result might show later than you’d expect.
Check with your healthcare provider if you’re concerned, or you’re undergoing fertility treatments. Sometimes a little reassurance that everything is fine can reduce your anxiety while you wait for a test result.
#8: When should you start to consider a phantom pregnancy?
By week 8 you’re likely to see a heartbeat on ultrasound.
If you’re familiar with your cycles and have missed 2 periods, an ultrasound should show a heartbeat or an amniotic sac if you’re pregnant.
If you’ve missed 2 periods, and have pregnancy symptoms, but still have negative pregnancy tests, then speak to your doctor. Testing, such as ultrasound, can be arranged to check for pregnancy.
If you have negative pregnancy tests and an ultrasound shows no pregnancy but you still have signs of pregnancy, your doctor will investigate other possible physical causes for your symptoms.
If no physical reasons are found, pseudocyesis might be the cause.
#9: How to get rid of phantom pregnancy
There is no official cause of phantom pregnancy. The most likely cause is psychological.
If your doctor has ruled out medical reasons for your symptoms, it’s time to consider whether you are experiencing a psychological pregnancy.
Most treatment involves the use of imaging techniques, such as ultrasound, to show there is no baby or actual pregnancy.
#10: What to do about a psychological pregnancy?
Although it rare to experience a phantom pregnancy, it’s important to seek the right support for pseudocyesis.
As research shows there’s usually a psychological basis for phantom pregnancy, it’s a good idea to seek the support of a therapist.
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant, experienced multiple miscarriages, or if you strongly desire a pregnancy but aren’t able to conceive, it’s possible your body is experiencing a psychological pregnancy.
Working with a therapist would be the best way of finding out whether this is the case. A therapist can guide you through the process of ending the phantom pregnancy.
#11: Phantom pregnancy kicks
Phantom pregnancy kicks are the phenomenon of feeling ‘movements’ when you’re not pregnant. It’s more likely to happen after a pregnancy but it can occur even if you’ve never had a baby.
The exact cause is unknown but it is thought to occur in the months after birth, as your internal organs slowly shift back into place. Other causes include muscle spasms, gas and even uterine irritation.
This can lead to some strange feelings, and can feel like a baby moving inside the belly.
The feelings are normal and aren’t a sign of a phantom pregnancy, unless you experience other pregnancy symptoms, or unless they are experienced without the recent birth of a baby.