You’ve probably heard a story about it at least once: a woman who didn’t know she was pregnant until she went into labor. Your first thought? How is it possible to not know you’re carrying a baby?
It’s not out of the question, says Michael Cackovic, MD, an OB/GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “There are women who don’t have routine sex, don’t have routine periods, and don’t regularly see a doctor,” he says. Under those circumstances, it’s possible you could not realize you’re pregnant.
That condition, called denied pregnancy, happens often. A few studies have estimated that one in 400 or 500 women are 20 weeks, or about 5 months, into their pregnancy before they realize they are with child. That’s about the same as one woman on a commercial jet full of moms-to-be.
How It Happens
A number of things could keep a woman from noticing the changes in her body:
Fear or stress. The thought of becoming a mother is so stressful for some women that they go into deep denial -- so deep that they don’t know they’re pregnant. “Denial is a very powerful defense mechanism, making it possible to talk yourself out of every symptom you may have. The movement in your abdomen is ‘just gas,’ for instance,” Cackovic says.
For example, a teenager may deny or ignore a pregnancy because she doesn’t want her parents to know she’s had sex. A married woman may do the same because she got pregnant by someone other than her partner. Some women may have a denied pregnancy because of a mental health problem, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
No symptoms. For some women, the physical tip-offs of pregnancy, like weight gain, morning sickness, heartburn, or fatigue, don’t happen. Or they’re so mild that a woman just doesn’t notice them. Depending on her body type, “it’s reasonable for a woman to make it to 30 weeks without looking pregnant,” Cackovic says.
Weight changes. If a woman is overweight or her size often goes up and down, she might not notice the extra baby weight. If she’s obese, Cackovic says, she may not “have the physical feelings of being pregnant” that non-obese women feel.
Period problems. A woman can have irregular periods because of stress, some medications (like birth control pills or drugs for epilepsy), obesity, or health problems like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), uncontrolled diabetes, or an eating disorder. So when her period is a no-show, her first thought may not be pregnancy.
She can’t feel the baby move. Usually a mom-to-be will start to feel her baby kicking or rolling between 18 to 20 weeks of pregnancy. But if the placenta happens to be in the front of her uterus, she may not feel those movements, Cackovic says.
Research suggests a well-adjusted woman can have a denied pregnancy and still go on to be a good mother, especially if she’s able to come to grips with the fact that she’s going to have a baby, Cackovic says. For example, some women understand and accept it when they see an ultrasound image of their child. But doctors usually recommend a mental health evaluation to figure out what caused her to deny her pregnancy. It’s also an important step to prevent child abuse and neglect, which are more common after denied pregnancies than normal ones.
Why It Matters
Women can and do deliver healthy babies after a denied pregnancy, Cackovic says. But there are risks to not knowing you’re pregnant:
- You could miss out on the prenatal care that can ensure that you and your baby are healthy, like physical exams, blood tests, and ultrasound scans.
- You won’t know your or your baby’s risk for complications, like anemia, a type of high blood pressure called preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, or birth defects.
- You won’t know it’s time to make healthy changes that help your baby grow and thrive, like getting good nutrition, avoiding alcohol, and stopping certain medications.
Know the Early Signs
It’s hard to predict who could have a denied pregnancy. But if you think you might miss some of the classic signs, like weight gain or a missing period, you can watch out for other early signals, such as: