Hidden and Denied Pregnancy

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We’ve all seen the news stories. A proud mother is cradling her newborn, but looking baffled – she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was in labor.  For those who have been pregnant before, this seems impossible. After all, how can you miss all of the signs and symptoms of pregnancy? Most women are chomping at the bit to take a pregnancy test the minute their period is late.

Reasons Behind Hidden or Denied Pregnancy

Actually, there are two reasons why a woman wouldn't be aware of her pregnancy; both suggest that there are significant psychological issues at work. Hidden pregnancies are pregnancies that are intentionally hidden: the mom knows she's pregnant but doesn't admit it. Denied, or negated, pregnancies occur when the mother unconsciously chooses to avoid noticing the obvious symptoms of pregnancy.

Why would a mother choose to ignore a pregnancy — or deny that she is pregnant? There can be many reasons; some are understandable and rational:

  • The mother is obese and thus is unaware of the additional weight or pressure she might otherwise feel;
  • The mother has taken a pregnancy test which gave incorrect negative results;
  • The mother has an irregular menstrual cycle, and thus does not miss her period until she is several weeks or even months pregnant;
  • The mother is an athlete who is training hard enough that early pregnancy is not physically obvious;
  • Symptoms of pregnancy, such as morning sickness, do not appear — or appear in unexpected ways (morning sickness at night, for example)
  • The pregnancy is an unwanted result of rape or incest, and the mother chooses not to mention that she is pregnant in order to avoid the potentially negative consequences

While some hidden pregnancies make sense, however, many are the result of psychosis. The mother to have literally hidden her own physical state from herself until the baby is actually born.

Denied Pregnancy

According to research, the state of denied pregnancy is not uncommon. In fact, not knowing you are pregnant until you are 20 weeks pregnant happens in about 1 in 475 pregnancies. They add that denial of pregnancy at 20 weeks' gestation or later (one in 475 pregnancies) occurs more often than Rh disease and some other things we think of as fairly rare.

Denied Labor

While it is a bit more rare to not know until you’re in labor, about one in 2,455 births. Though when you put that into perspective, you learn that you’re actually three times more likely to give birth without knowing you were pregnant than you are to give birth to triplets! (1 in 7,225 pregnancies) In fact, when researchers extrapolated the data to a country like Germany, it found that about 300 mothers a year would not know they were pregnant until they started labor.

The researchers are proposing that a specific category of medical classification be added under reproductive dysfunction for negated pregnancies. This would include denied or concealed pregnancies. It may also include false pregnancy (pseudocyesis), obsessive desire to have children and other pathological behavior of a mother towards her offspring.

This is not a problem with only a certain subset of women, it happens in every socioeconomic group, race, religion, etc. Either way, the bottom line is that not knowing you're pregnant, even for 20 weeks of pregnancy, has the potential to risk the health of the mother and baby.

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Article Sources

  • Denied and concealed pregnancies. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2006; 61: 723-30.
  • Surprise births not uncommon. British Medical Journal 2002; 324: 458.