I Was Pregnant and Didn't Know!
Scott Chudnoff, Chair, Department of Gynecology
You read that right: a surprise birth. How is it possible to be pregnant and not know up until the moment you deliver? We hear it in the news, like in this recent story about a couple whose surprise “insta baby” arrived at Stamford Hospital after the mother complained of severe stomach cramps. Alas, we still remain puzzled. We want to ask these women in question, didn’t you have morning sickness? Did you not notice the weight gain, even at full term? What about your period taking a pause for nine months?
We’re with you: even doctors oftentimes are surprised at this incredibly rare, but possible, phenomenon called denied pregnancy or cryptic pregnancy. Here’s a medical explanation of how this can happen.
1. False negative: Despite the marketing that claims otherwise, pregnancy tests can be incorrect, especially if taken too early or if done incorrectly. Over-the-counter pregnancy tests work by detecting a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. The fetus may not have enough of this hormone to result in an accurate positive on a home pregnancy test.
2. Too much trust in birth control: Thought the rates tend to be small, it is possible for birth control to fail. Women who are actively preventing pregnancy put their full trust in whichever contraceptive regime they choose. Therefore, pregnancy becomes ruled out as a possibility as long as the birth control method is being used properly.
3. Little to no symptoms: Some women go through their entire pregnancy without any signs of nausea or vomiting. Even if that’s not the case, one can simply dismiss morning sickness as a fleeting stomach bug or other ailment such as an adverse reaction to food.
4. How you carry that weight: The simple explanation is this: women carry weight differently. Some women are naturally larger around the mid-section and are used to putting on weight primarily in that area. Women who start a diet or exercise regimen shortly after becoming (unknowingly) pregnant may also lose weight or just not gain a noticeable amount of weight.
5. Irregular periods: Usually, a missed period is a tell-tale sign of pregnancy. However, pregnancy isn’t likely to be the first thought for a woman who naturally has irregular cycles due to other underlying medical factors like stress, some medications, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or an eating disorder. Furthermore, you can definitely mistake light spotting during pregnancy for a lighter period.
6. An inactive baby: Women who don’t know they are pregnant don’t feel the baby move. This seems like a logical enough explanation, but how can a growing baby not be active in the womb? It can depend upon where the baby is situated. If the placenta is in front of the uterus, it’s possible mom won’t feel the baby kicking about.
7. Denial and stress are powerful tools: Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. Many sexually active teenagers who become pregnant may not be aware because they are in denial of their symptoms or don’t have the emotional resources to cope with the mere possibility. On the other side of the fence, women who have certain conditions that could impact their fertility, such as PCOS, can simply operate under the assumption that they’re infertile.
What lesson can we take from all this? A denied pregnancy or cryptic pregnancy is extremely rare, but it can happen. You may still be asking… how? Why? Leave it up to the medical professionals to understand and educate the public on this unique and fascinating occurrence.