AskDefine | Define couvade

Dictionary Definition

couvade n : a custom among some peoples whereby the husband of a pregnant wife is put to bed at the time of bearing the child

Extensive Definition

The term couvade is derived from the early French word (Couver "to hatch") and originally referred to the medieval Basque custom in which the father, during or immediately after the birth of a child, took to bed, complained of having labour pains, and was accorded the treatment usually shown women during pregnancy or after childbirth. The medical term for this condition is sympathetic pregnancy.
Couvade "involves a father experiencing some of the behavior of his wife at near the time of childbirth, including her birth pains, postpartum seclusion, food restrictions, and sex taboos" (Counihan, p.69).
Western medicine has tended to see the couvade as a medical syndrome or pathology.


Couvade is a common but poorly understood phenomenon whereby the expectant father experiences apparently physical symptoms during the pregnancy for which there is no recognized physiological basis. Symptoms commonly include indigestion, increased or decreased appetite, weight gain, diarrhea or constipation, headache, and toothache... Couvade has been seen as an expression of somatized anxiety, pseudo-sibling rivalry, identification with the fetus, ambivalence about fatherhood, a statement of paternity, or parturition envy. It is likely that the dynamics of couvade may vary between individuals and may be multidetermined (Klein, 1991).
In some extreme cases, fathers can grow a belly similar to a 7 month pregnant woman and gain approximately 25 to 30 pounds ("phantom pregnancy"). Other symptoms include and are not limited to developed cravings, suffered nausea, breast augmentation, and insomnia.
In "Psycho-Evolutionary" theory, it is thought that couvade is a way to minimize sexual differences in the pregnancy and birthing experience. The couvade may also be a way to establish the father's role in the child's life and to give balance to the gender roles. Couvade is more common where sex roles are flexible and the female is of a dominant status .


Studies have shown that the male partner cohabitating with a pregnant female will experience hormonal shifts in his prolactin, cortisol, estradiol and testosterone levels; typically starting at the end of the first trimester and continuing through several weeks post-partum. Various explanations of how and why this occurs have been given, including an interaction of factors (some of which are little-researched) such as pheromones, circadian rhythms, simple stress, and mitogenetics.
Couvade has been reported by travelers throughout history, including the Greek geographer Strabo and the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. It has been observed and studied by anthropologists in modern times and is often seen in tribal societies. In some indigenous societies, "sympathetic pregnancy" is attributed to demons or spirits inflicting the symptoms in an attempt to cause problems for the family.
Currently, scientists are at a loss to whether or not Couvade syndrome should be considered psychosomatic, as the syndrome is brought on by a psychological effect (i.e.) the pregnancy of the wife, but was formerly considered a form of Munchausen syndrome. Formerly a number of elaborate psychological explanations were given for it, but today the general medical thought is shifting to a more physical explanation based on hormones.
Some studies report that nosebleeds are sometimes a symptom, indicating that it cannot be totally psychosomatic, as nosebleeds are a symptom caused primarily by mechanical means (e.g. atmospheric conditions) or by the thinning of the wall of the nose. Furthermore, the Couvade phenomenon seems to exist everywhere, and the syndrome does not appear in other, psychologically similar stress situations. In many cases the symptoms appear before the husband is even consciously aware of the wife's pregnancy.
Author Gordon Churchwell has written extensively on the hormonal explanation for the phenomena.


  • Klein, H. Couvade syndrome: male counterpart to pregnancy. Int J Psychiatry Med, 21: 1, 1991, 57-69.
  • Counihan, Carole. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. New York: Routledge, 1999.
couvade in German: Männerkindbett
couvade in Spanish: Covada
couvade in French: Couvade
couvade in Hebrew: תסמונת קובאד
couvade in Croatian: Kuvada
couvade in Dutch: Couvade
couvade in Polish: Kuwada
couvade in Portuguese: Couvade
couvade in Chinese: 苦娃達
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