Suppressed Pregnancy: Unnoticed Pregnant? Not that rare


Can you ignore that you are pregnant? Sounds unbelievable, but it's not that rare: 1,500 women in Germany suppress their pregnancy every year. Sometimes until birth. Dr. Ilka Lennertz, a psychologist at the Department of Psychosomatics at the Dresden University Hospital, can explain this.

It sounds incomprehensible: How is it possible that women simply do not notice their pregnancy, sometimes not until the end?

It is an enormous displacement effort, which in retrospect is difficult to understand even for those affected. I have spoken to women who thought their back pains were unbearable and only found out in hospital that they were about to have a child. Many later say: "I had heard of such a thing before. But I never thought that this could happen to myself."

Are you sure that it is not a conscious concealment, but a subconscious pushing aside?


For most women, yes. Many have a clue at some point during pregnancy – but it is not thought through to the end.

The premonition should become more when the pants no longer close …

You can find an explanation for everything: Many of these women are familiar with weight fluctuations. Three, four kilos more or less on the scales is nothing special for her.

Can you really mistake a pregnant woman for a big belly?

The women affected are unconsciously very adept at reinterpreting their physical changes. The stomach is bloated, and the summer heat may be responsible for dizziness and nausea. In addition, there is the so-called silhouette phenomenon …

What's this?

In women who suppress their pregnancy, the belly usually remains much smaller than in other pregnant women. We assume that they unconsciously tense their abdominal muscles and do not change their posture. The baby is likely to be closer to the spine. After birth, some of these babies can be seen to have very little space in their tummy.

Top secret!

There is also that: women who notice their pregnancy but don't want to confide in anyone. Often it is possible to keep the secret up until the birth. But what then? Fortunately, in Germany there is an offer of confidential birth, during which no one finds out about the identity of the pregnant woman.

What about the child's movements that you can't ignore?

Ignore is the wrong word. It may be hard to understand, but if it's just not possible that the rumbling in the belly came from a baby, then all other reasons are more obvious: a growling stomach, constipation, an intestinal infection. The explanations are often so conclusive that the partner or work colleagues do not become suspicious either. According to one study, around a third of the women saw a doctor – but pregnancy was not found.

How often does it happen that women do not know about their pregnancy?

We speak of a suppressed pregnancy if it is not noticed by the 20th week. This happens about 1500 times in Germany every year. 250 women do not find out that they will have a baby until they are born.

So it's not a totally out of the way problem?

Absolutely not. It is about as common as eclampsia (the most severe form of pregnancy poisoning, general note), which is routinely searched for in antenatal care. It is very important to point this out: something like this happens! It can happen to an educated 42-year-old academic as well as an 18-year-old without a school leaving certificate.

Even so, it doesn't happen by chance. What makes women refuse to accept pregnancy?

The women we interviewed were all in a crisis before pregnancy. You may have lost your job, separated, or learned of a serious illness. Your head is full of other problems, so to speak. Pregnancy would bring down the house of cards that was so hard to maintain. Crises in connection with the desire to have children are also not uncommon: women who have had a miscarriage or who have had long unsuccessful fertility treatment sometimes suppress pregnancy. They are afraid that their hope will be dashed one more time. They prefer not to even allow the thought of pregnancy.

Improve provision

A suppressed pregnancy is not only dramatic for the mother-to-be, but also risky for the unborn child: the pregnant women do not go to preventive care, they may smoke or drink alcohol. In particularly tragic cases, mothers kill their babies after a secret birth. The Dresden research group wants to work out suggestions on how to track down these women with their needs in good time so that we can advise them quickly, easily and anonymously.

Wouldn't it be a better strategy for the psyche to deal openly with such problems?

Of course, but that's not so easy for many people. If you look at the lives of these women, you will notice again and again: they often come from families in which conflicts were never openly resolved, problems such as alcohol addiction were preferred to be kept quiet. Such a pattern continues for generations. Everyone in the family is pretty good at maintaining the perfect exterior facade. In a conflict situation, the women concerned become very desperate and can no longer find a way to open up.

Can you describe the moment when women realize they are going to be mothers?

For many, it is a shock that is greater the further the pregnancy has progressed. It is extreme, of course, when the women come to the hospital during childbirth and a doctor says to them, "This is labor and you are having a baby." You can't switch from now on. Some women leave the hospital without a baby first to find out whether they want that at all – to be a mother.

And then?

Most want. There are very moving stories. For example that of a woman who only came back after a while to fetch her baby. Suddenly she even managed to breastfeed, even though she had never had the baby to her breast before. It doesn't always turn out like this. For some women and couples, putting their baby up for adoption can also be the right and responsible way.

Have you also met women who are looking forward to the baby??

It may sound paradoxical, but: Yes, they are often happy too. As I said, it is not uncommon for the excessive hope in a child to be behind such a repression. Especially for the women who somehow had a clue, suddenly something becomes right. It's like you've finally solved a puzzle. It may sound strange, but: the nausea, the lack of the rule, the rumbling stomach – all of a sudden it all makes sense for women. It's good if there is still some time to get in the mood for the new life and get some very mundane things on the way: buy rompers and diapers, let grandma and the boss know.

A bumpy start to family life. Can it still work well?

Absolutely. One should be careful of the prejudice that these mothers cannot be good mothers. There are bad stories that the media also like to exaggerate: women who, after a suppressed pregnancy, give birth to their baby in the bathtub and then kill it. But that is the absolute exception. Often they are completely normal women who absolutely need support in this situation. It would be great to have a very targeted range of advice throughout Germany. If the women realize that they are not left alone with their situation, but that there are solutions, they might be able to let the truth in earlier.

There is research going on

Displaced pregnancies are not a marginal problem – they happen thousands of times in Germany every year. In order to get a better picture of this phenomenon, employees of the clinic and polyclinic for psychotherapy and psychosomatics at the Carl Gustav Carus University Clinic in Dresden are currently interviewing women in Saxony who have suppressed their pregnancy. The psychologist Dr. Ilka Lennertz leads this research project.

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Christiane Börger