Cryptic pregnancy

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Cryptic pregnancy defined

Quick notes:

  • The signs of a cryptic pregnancy

  • What conditions are cryptic pregnancies associated with?

  • How common are cryptic pregnancies?

Cryptic pregnancies, or stealth pregnancies, happen when a woman is unaware of her pregnancy until very late in the pregnancy or sometimes even until she gives birth. Oftentimes, even friends and families of the pregnant woman do not realize she is pregnant, either.

Cryptic pregnancies are typified by pseudo-menstrual bleeding and a general lack of classic pregnancy symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. Researchers estimate that approximately one in every 475 women undergoes a cryptic pregnancy that is not realized until the 20th week of pregnancy.

What are the risks?

Unfortunately, cryptic pregnancies are not without sometimes severe consequences. These can include giving birth with no assistance, psychological distress, and even neonaticide.

“Cryptic pregnancies put both the mother and the infant at significant risk. “

The conclusions about which women may be at risk for cryptic pregnancies have proven unclear. It appears that in most cases, the women affected have good social support and generally have no homogenous identifying factors in common.

There are also conflicting reports about cryptic pregnancies in relation to psychiatric diagnoses. Only a small number of women affected were afflicted with a psychiatric disorder.

What are the symptoms of a cryptic pregnancy?

In another interesting finding, it was reported that the majority of women who experienced a cryptic pregnancy reported regular periods for the duration of the unknown pregnancy. Only 26 percent of the women did not have a period at all, which is usually expected with a typical pregnancy.

John Schnobrich / Unsplash

Nausea was also noticeably absent as a normal pregnancy experience and continued to be absent for the duration of the undetected pregnancy.  This, along with minimal abdominal swelling and low birth weight, is thought to be further reasons why the pregnancies were not perceived.

There are very few concrete theories that support the reasons for cryptic pregnancies, although it has been studied.  It seems to be understood that there are fewer bodily indications of pregnancy with a cryptic pregnancy, and so they are often overlooked.

A woman may also have false-negative pregnancy tests with a cryptic pregnancy, furthering her belief that she is not, in fact, pregnant.  After this, it may be even easier to deny other pregnancy symptoms, like vomiting or nausea as simply an illness or indigestion.

Why do cryptic pregnancies happen?

As mentioned previously, low hormone levels in the mother may also mean that her pregnancy symptoms are very mild or barely discernible at all.  Cryptic pregnancies are also more common when a woman is on birth control or has an IUD to prevent pregnancy.  In this case, it may simply not occur to the mother that she is pregnant at all since she believes she is protected.

One feasible theory is a hypothesis supported by Australian research, which suggests that cryptic pregnancies are an adaptive mechanism for the mother when she is undergoing a large number of psychosocial life stressors.

 “A mother does not become pregnant in order to provide employment to medical people. Giving birth is an ecstatic jubilant adventure not available to males. It is a woman’s crowning creative experience of a lifetime.”

– John Stevenson

One of the most commonly cited explanations for cryptic pregnancies is that the mother is not ready psychologically to accept the pregnancy, and therefore denies it, but this doesn’t cover all of the possible scenarios.  Many times a woman is not in denial, but it simply never crossed her mind that she was pregnant, which are two very different things.

Which conditions make cryptic pregnancies more likely?

Cryptic pregnancies are also more common in women who have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) because it is typified by fertility difficulties and irregular periods.  Perimenopause may also make a woman believe she is not pregnant when she is, due to less consistent periods, weight gain, and hormonal fluctuations.

People may also experience a cryptic pregnancy when they get pregnant again immediately after giving birth, wherein no menstruation ever returns. Women athletes can also be accustomed to absent menstruation due to their low body fat and high activity.

Although there are some happy endings when it comes to cryptic births, it is undesirable for many reasons. One of these is the complete lack of prenatal care, which is important for both mother and baby during pregnancy to ensure that everyone is ready for another family member, and so health problems can be prevented or at least prepared for.

Are cryptic pregnancies preventable?

Cryptic pregnancy was brought up on the Dr. Phil talk show in 2018 when a woman came on insisting that she had been pregnant for years with multiples, even though she had undergone a tubal ligation at 20 years of age.  This is not what a cryptic pregnancy is.

Another story told far too often is of a teenager who did not want her baby, and so abandons or kills her baby after birth. These are preventable tragedies.

Remember, cryptic pregnancies are not understood well, but they do happen and we have to be vigilant about our bodies when we are of child-bearing age to prevent an undesirable outcome.

If you feel as if you are not ready to have a baby, but find that you are pregnant, there are resources for you. You are not alone.

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