In a society that has a low tolerance for uncertainty, cases that challenge our collective notion of the possible fascinate and confuse us. Headlines such as “Baby birth shock for soldier on Afghanistan deployment”, or “I had this extremely painful urge to push and that’s when the head came out” are received with a mix of incredulity and scepticism. Yet cases of “cryptic pregnancy” – also known as “pregnancy denial” – are not particularly rare. In fact, they are estimated to occur in around one in 2,500 cases, suggesting around 320 cases in the UK annually, or a potential headline story almost every day.
In these cases, women lack all awareness of pregnancy and report experiencing few, if any, of the common symptoms. But uncertainty over the diagnosis of pregnancy is not unusual. While a woman who thinks that she may be pregnant can now carry out a shop-bought pregnancy test with a high degree of accuracy, historically and – even in the relatively recent past – it was not easy to confirm that a woman was pregnant. Signs and symptoms were described as “probable” and “presumptive” rather than diagnostic.
The symptoms of pregnancy
But if awareness of pregnancy can now be regarded as a notorious fact, what are the symptoms that any woman would recognise? And how could they still be overlooked, dismissed or ascribed to another cause?
Absence of menstrual periods is the most common early symptom of pregnancy. However, there are many reasons why a woman may not menstruate regularly, including some medical disorders and factors such as poor diet or stress. Women approaching the menopause are likely to have disrupted menstruation and some women stop having periods altogether when taking the contraceptive pill. Conversely, “menstrual–like” bleeding during pregnancy (any pregnant woman who experiences any vaginal bleeding should seek medical attention) is reported, although not explained, in around 1 per cent of women.