Cryptic pregnancy is when a pregnant person doesn’t know they’re pregnant. It’s also known as stealth pregnancy or denied pregnancy. If you have this, you may not realize you’re pregnant until very late into your pregnancy or until you go into labor.
Cryptic pregnancy is rare. Studies estimate that 1 in 400 or 500 women are 20 weeks (about 5 months) into pregnancy before realizing it. One in 2,500 women go all the way to delivery before realizing they’re having a baby. That’s about three times more common than the chance of having triplets.
How Can You Be Pregnant and Not Know?
For women who’ve had children, it may seem impossible to believe someone can be pregnant and not know. The many not-so-pleasant symptoms, lack of periods, and weight gain are usually dead giveaways that your body is creating new life.
If you’re one of the few, though, it’s possible to go through pregnancy and not know you’re having a baby. This may leave your doctors as confused as you are. You may have mental health issues that keep you from recognizing or accepting you’re going to have a baby. Some other explanations cryptic pregnancies include:
You take birth control. If you take birth control or use contraception as directed, you might think you can’t be pregnant. But no form of contraception is 100% foolproof. Some types allow you to skip periods, which can make it even harder to know you’re pregnant.
You don’t have regular periods. One of the first and biggest signs of pregnancy for many women is a missed period. But this can be tricky if your periods don’t arrive like clockwork. If you’re under a lot of stress, taking certain meds, or have other health issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), missing a period might not raise the same red flags.
You have some bleeding or intermittent spotting. In early pregnancy, implantation bleeding can happen about 2 weeks after conception when your future baby attaches to the side of your uterus. This bleeding can sometimes be mistaken for a period, especially for women who don’t bleed heavily. Even in a healthy pregnancy, some women will continue to have intermittent spotting and bleeding throughout pregnancy, which might also be mistaken for light periods.
You took a pregnancy test. Most home pregnancy test brands advertise their high accuracy rates, but that doesn’t mean they’re never wrong. The tests work by detecting certain levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in your urine. It’s possible to get a false negative result. If you don’t follow the directions accurately or you take the test too early, you might not have enough hCG built up to get a positive result.
You don’t have typical pregnancy signs or symptoms. Many women have a variety of telltale pregnancy symptoms starting soon after conception. If you don’t have signs like cramping, nausea, vomiting, or breast tenderness, it’s possible not to know you’re pregnant. If you have mild morning sickness, you might simply write it off as a stomach bug or other temporary illness.
You don’t gain weight or have a baby bump. Every woman will carry pregnancy weight differently. If you’re a larger woman or you don’t gain a lot of weight as your pregnancy progresses, you might not know you’re pregnant. The same is true if you started dieting or working out early on during your pregnancy – you might lose weight instead of gaining it.
You’ve dealt with infertility or were told you can’t have children. Women who’ve had a hard time getting pregnant in the past, or have health conditions that can cause infertility, might not believe that they’re pregnant. If you’re older, you might think you can’t get pregnant anymore. Or you may confuse pregnancy symptoms with the signs of menopause.
You don’t feel your baby move. You typically start to feel your unborn baby kicking or rolling between 18 and 20 weeks of pregnancy. But if the placenta happens to be in the front of your uterus, you may not feel those movements.
You just can’t believe it. Stress, fear, and shame sometimes play a role in accepting or acknowledging pregnancy. If your pregnancy comes during a difficult time, you might be less likely to realize it. Denial can be powerful.
Research suggests you can have a cryptic pregnancy and go on to be a good mother, especially if you’re able to come to grips with the fact you’re having a baby.
It might help you accept your pregnancy when you see an ultrasound image of your baby in your womb. Your doctor might also recommend a mental health evaluation to figure out what’s causing you to deny your pregnancy. It’s an important step in preventing child abuse and neglect – which research shows are more common after cryptic pregnancies.
What Are Cryptic Pregnancy Symptoms?
Cryptic pregnancies are often defined by lack of normal pregnancy signs and symptoms. But some women don’t have these symptoms. And others might have mild pregnancy symptoms but write them off as something else.
If there’s a possibility you could be pregnant, there are some signs you should look for.
One of those is missed periods. There’s no such thing as a cryptic pregnancy period (a menstrual period during cryptic pregnancy). But you might have implantation bleeding or abnormal pregnancy bleeding and think it's your period.
Some other common symptoms you shouldn’t ignore are:
- Sore or swollen breasts
- Nausea or vomiting
- Frequent urination
- Sudden food aversions or cravings
If you have these, ask your doctor if you’re pregnant or think about taking an at-home pregnancy test.
What Are the Outcomes of a Cryptic Pregnancy?
Having regular checkups and good prenatal care help women and their babies be healthy. But if you don’t know you’re pregnant, you probably won’t get the health care you and your baby need. This puts both of you at greater risk for potentially serious problems.
For example, if you have a cryptic pregnancy, you’re more likely to give birth outside of a hospital and without medical care. What’s more, giving birth unexpectedly can be a traumatic experience and cause you to have mental health issues that may need to be worked through with professional help.
Like many babies whose mothers didn’t have access to prenatal care, those born from cryptic pregnancies are more likely to be premature, underweight, or generally small for their gestational age. Babies from cryptic pregnancies also have an increased risk of stillbirth, infant death, and neglect.