How Do You NOT Know You’re Pregnant?! I Ask While Reading Another Surprise Birth Story
There was another story of a woman who claims she had no idea that she was pregnant, giving birth on an airplane over the Pacific recently. Video footage of the passengers erupting in applause made its way around TikTok and while everyone was delighted by the happy story, I was perplexed. The woman claimed she didn’t know she was expecting and if I’m being honest, I find that hard to believe.
I cannot possibly be the only person who reads a story like this and says, “Nope. No way that lady didn’t know she was pregnant.” But here I am. I just cannot fathom how this can be true and sometimes when I see these stories, I wonder what the hell is wrong with the new mother? Is she on drugs?
I have had three children and at no point during any of those pregnancies was it ever a mystery to me what was going on. My body was tossing out cues left and right. The morning sickness, the lack of a period, the growing belly, the kicking and moving around inside, the laundry list of other pregnancy symptoms that are not state-held secrets or ancient mysteries. Pregnancy is often brutal and it was on me, so I was incapable of understanding stories about women who find the shock of their life when they give birth in a gas station bathroom or, in the case of a viral TikTok video, on an airplane. How do these women NOT know they are pregnant!? I ask while reading yet another surprise birth story.
My utter disbelief with this phenomenon left me feeling uncomfortable. Was I being judgemental? Yup. Probably. Should I shut the hell up and do some research to learn more about why and how some women truly DO NOT know they are pregnant until they give birth? Obviously, yes. I might have found myself in a position of disbelief, but I’m not an unkind person, so I dove into studies and articles to learn more.
I did some work to better understand this truly fascinating phenomenon that turns out to be shockingly common and is as old as time. When I find myself judging a story and refusing to believe it, I can’t help but dig a bit because chances are either I am being willfully ignorant or there is something bogus happening and either way, I should do better and educate myself. And so, if you ever read these stories and scoff — as I did — then check this out because the science behind why some women don’t know they are pregnant is astounding.
For starters, it’s called a ‘cryptic ’ or a ‘denied’ pregnancy.
As hard to believe as it may sound, a cryptic or denied pregnancy is when a woman is not aware that she is expecting. In some documented cases, not even family, friends, or even medical providers are aware of the pregnancy either. The mother usually finds out at the very end of the pregnancy or during birth, hence all of those wild news stories of babies being delivered in Taxi cabs and elevators.
It is estimated that 1 in every 475 pregnancies are cryptic or denied and go undiscovered until at least the 20th week of pregnancy, which is the halfway point. For most women who are unaware of their pregnancy status, however, they are not likely to discover it until labor begins.
In one fascinating example of a cryptic pregnancy, the mother didn’t even look pregnant. She was not overweight and had zero typical symptoms of pregnancy. And honestly, when you see a photo of her during her sixth month of pregnancy, you can see why she literally had no idea she was expecting. It makes this whole phenomenon more believable for skeptics like me.
Some women do not want to be mothers, which is not abnormal and actually quite common. But in some cases, the desire to not be pregnant can create a subconscious need to dismiss signs of pregnancy and attribute them as symptoms of other issues such as gas or digestion issues. But before we make an assumption that denial of this depth is a red flag for a psychological problem, science has already ruled that out.
“Research has shown contradictory evidence regarding the association of cryptic pregnancy with psychiatric disorders. Psychiatric symptoms related to schizophrenia, depression or personality disorder are only prominent in a minority of cases, thus are not recognized as an essential feature of cryptic pregnancy.” — News Medical Life Sciences
Missing symptoms and oddly times periods
One of the reasons why women who have surprise births manage to never know that they pregnant is for one of two reasons. Either they have no common symptoms of pregnancy and or they have such irregular periods already that a missing period wouldn’t register on their minds as something to be attuned to.
What is curious is that some women who experience irregular periods may also experience fluctuating hormones that will cause spotting that could be mistaken as a period. So, if a woman with a cryptic pregnancy has spotting in addition to a history of oddly timed periods, why would she assume she is expecting?
When pregnancy tests and ultrasounds fail to detect a pregnancy
This was shocking to me after going through three pregnancies and deliveries, but it turns out that even a pregnancy test and an ultrasound can totally miss a pregnancy. How, though?
“Even an ultrasound can fail to find a growing fetus if it’s not looking in the right place. If previous testing has indicated that you aren’t pregnant, it’s also possible that an ultrasound technician isn’t going to spend a lot of time looking for a growing fetus.” — Healthline
So, if you do manage to get an ultrasound despite a negative pregnancy test, how does an ultrasound miss spotting a human being growing inside of you? Well, there a few reasons why that might happen. For starters, the embryo might have implanted in an unexpected location in the uterus, making it difficult to identify. Some women have a uniquely shaped uterus that is just off-kilter enough for an ultrasound technician to not know to keep looking. And finally, the ultrasound tech might just plain old make a mistake. Human errors are super common.
So, what is labor different for cryptic pregnancies?
This was one of my first questions. If the woman doesn’t even know she’s pregnant and she was blessed with missing all those horribly unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, then does that also mean that labor will be easier too?
Not necessarily, according to science.
“You’ll typically have contractions that feel like severe cramps while your cervix stretches to be able to deliver the baby. Once your cervix is dilated, your body will need to push the baby out of the birth canal.” — Healthline
I need to stop right here and say that I feel absolutely awful for any mother who goes into labor and hasn’t the opportunity to adjust to being pregnant and had the months of emotional and mental preparation for the major life event that giving birth truly is. I cannot imagine what would be like to go into labor without knowing first-hand — hence this entire exercise in trying to understand this phenomenon, to begin with.
The only difference in labor experiences between women who knew they were expecting and those who didn’t was simply the fact of knowing they were pregnant or not.
Not all of these stories are happy news bites.
The sad truth about cryptic pregnancies is that not all of them end with a healthy baby or healthy mother. In more cases, than should ever happen, mothers don’t know they are pregnant because of severe mental illness, addiction, abusive relationships, or the fact that they are far too young to understand what is happening to their bodies. In these very sad cases, either the baby or the mother — or tragically both — do not survive labor.
I’m glad I read up about this because it seems that at least once a year there is a viral story about some mother, somewhere, giving birth under extraordinary circumstances because she didn’t know she was expecting. I can no longer find myself in a position of not understanding.
To the lady who gave birth over the Pacific while en route to Hawaii, congratulations! I hope you have a truly wonderful adventure in motherhood.