Pregnancy Symptoms: Do Dads-to-Be Experience Hormonal Changes?

I recently read that expecting dads also go through hormonal changes. Is this true?

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Peg Plumbo CNM

Peg Plumbo has been a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) since 1976. She has assisted at over 1,000 births and currently teaches in the... Read more

For centuries, documentation has existed of a syndrome of empathetic response to the stress, pain or sensations of others. The French have a term for this which we have adopted called "couvade." Even the journals of explorer Marco Polo discuss this phenomenon. In its simplest manifestations, we have all experienced some slight physical response, even pain, when we witness a friend hit his finger with a hammer or hear someone relate a tragic incident. Studies have actually measured stress responses and hormonal changes in research participants as they watch videos of traumatic events.

People who care for pregnant women have observed husbands and partners experience a range of pains and discomforts similar to those experienced by the pregnant and laboring woman. Nursing literature is full of such studies. Anthropologists have observed and recorded numerous cultures in which much attention is directed toward the father after his "ordeal" of "giving birth". He may actually vocalize feelings of pain and anxiety at the same time the mother is giving birth. mimic facial expressions and even "push" during second stage labor.

In my practice, I have seen fathers gain the same amount of weight as their partners, experience nausea and constipation and even develop hemorrhoids.

Recently researchers at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada have demonstrated that fathers-to-be undergo hormonal changes as the birth of their child approaches. The researchers found that men's testosterone production leveled off significantly in the three weeks preceding the delivery of their child, then increased markedly after the birth. Estrogen production was significantly higher in fathers-to-be than in the control group while the levels of cortisol were lower in soon-to-be fathers.

This may be an adaptive response to the decreased need and desire to have sexual relations just prior to birth as well as the decreased desire and need to "fight or flee" just prior to birth.

The researchers point out that hormone levels are not predictive of fathering behavior and there is no "normal level" of paternal hormone change. This is, however, the first time that such alteration in hormone levels has been well documented. Further study is needed to see if a similar response occurs in non-biological fathers.

So it seems as though there may be a physiological basis for the couvade syndrome and researchers need to study this phenomenon more fully. In the meantime, it makes for some interesting observation around the refrigerator.

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