Call the Midwife: What is a phantom pregnancy?

The BBC drama's Christmas special featured a false or 'phantom' pregnancy, but what is the medical condition?

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This year’s Call The Midwife Christmas Special sees one of the South African patients tragically discovering that she was never pregnant in the first place, but rather going through a false or ‘phantom pregnancy’.

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What is a phantom pregnancy?

Pseudocyesis aka a phantom or ‘false’ pregnancy is a condition whereby a woman’s body mistakenly believes she is pregnant and changes to facilitate the gestation of a baby.

What are the symptoms of a phantom pregnancy?

Well, pretty much all the symptoms of an actual pregnancy. They’ll vary from woman to woman, but the majority of women with the condition will see their abdomen become enlarged to develop a false baby bump. Other symptoms can include menstrual irregularity or a completely absence of periods, food crasing, nausea, heartburn, reflux and constipation.

Breasts may become enlarged and nipples more sensitive, while some women report that they can feel their baby moving – even when there’s no baby present.

What causes phantom pregnancy?

Well, doctors aren’t entirely sure why it happens but it’s thought that it is linked to a very strong desire to have a baby. If someone is desperate to become pregnant their mind can convince their body to display pregnancy symptoms. 

It’s also been suggested that there’s some evidence the condition may be caused by extra hormone production in the body’s pituitary gland, as a result of emotional issues.

How is phantom pregnancy diagnosed?

A pregnancy test is the simplest method of diagnoses but sometimes hormone changes can make it a little more complicated by producing a false positive result. 

Pelvic examinations and an ultrasound can also help to make the diagnosis.

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Are women more likely to have a phantom pregnancy at a certain age? 

Young women are most likely to develop the extremely rare condition but it has also been known to affect women of all ages.

Can men be affected too?

Yes. You may have heard of sympathetic pregnancy, or couvade syndrome, which affects a small number of men who experience similar symptoms when their wives or daughters are pregnant.

 They’ve been known to gain weight, feel vague aches and pains, and even have abdominal swelling. 

How can phantom pregnancy be treated?

The most popular option appears to be counseling and psychological support, which helps to deal with any of the underlying feelings that may have contributed to the development of the condition.

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It’s important to consult a medical professional though, so they can rule out pregnancy or other possible medical conditions.