What Is a Cryptic Pregnancy?

A cryptic pregnancy is a pregnancy in which a woman is unaware that she is expecting a baby until halfway through it, or even up until labor or birth. Sometimes this is called a "stealth" or "denied" pregnancy.

Research estimates that as many as 1 in 475 pregnancies go undetected or unnoticed until the 20-week (five-month) mark. One in 2,500 aren't recognized until a woman goes into labor.

What to Know About a Cryptic Pregnancy - Illustration by Jessica Olah

Verywell / Jessica Olah

There are several possible causes of a cryptic pregnancy. A woman might not have typical pregnancy symptoms, or she might get a false negative pregnancy test result. Women with mental health issues might also not realize they are pregnant or be in denial.

This article explains the signs and causes of a cryptic pregnancy. It also discuss complications and how to cope if you have experienced this type of pregnancy.

Signs of a Cryptic Pregnancy

A cryptic pregnancy, by definition, is one that you don't have any awareness of. As such, there may not be any typical pregnancy symptoms like fatigue, nausea and vomiting, missed periods, or abdominal swelling.

But that doesn't always mean there are no signs. It may just be that they are vague enough that they are easily overlooked or believed to be caused by something else.

For example, someone could write off morning sickness as an upset stomach, or the absence of a period as an irregular menstrual cycle.

More awareness of cryptic pregnancies is needed so that women with even slight pregnancy symptoms can be medically evaluated.

Causes

There is no one thing that explains a cryptic pregnancy. However, experts think some of the following may contribute:

  • Lack of pregnancy symptoms: Common pregnancy symptoms like nausea, pelvic cramping, low back pain, and an enlarged abdominal area are different for each woman and may not be noticeable.
  • Irregular menstrual cycle: Irregular periods can make it difficult to know whether you've missed a period. This is especially true if your cycle is longer than the average 28 days. For someone who may not experience as many periods per year, the absence of a period may not be an immediate red flag for pregnancy.
  • Intermittent spotting: Bleeding and spotting that can happen during pregnancy may be mistaken for a light period.
  • Age and fertility issues: Pregnancy symptoms can sometimes be similar to early menopause symptoms. If you've struggled with fertility challenges in the past, you may find it difficult to believe that you could become pregnant without knowing it.
  • Inaccurate pregnancy test results: Pregnancy tests are usually pretty accurate, but errors can occur. It is possible for a pregnancy test to be negative even when a woman is actually pregnant.
  • No prominent “baby bump”: For someone who is overweight or obese, a pregnant belly might not be obvious. Some women may simply not gain much weight or begin to "show" until later in pregnancy.
  • Not feeling the baby move: The location of the fetus and placenta can sometimes make it hard to feel your baby move. With anterior placenta placement, in which the placenta is in the front of the uterus, it may take longer to feel the movements and they may be harder to recognize.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS can cause hormonal imbalances that throw off ovulation. This can lead to an unexpected pregnancy that may go unnoticed.
  • Birth control use: Birth control isn't always foolproof. Even when used correctly, it's possible to become pregnant. Those who use birth control may assume otherwise and ignore signs of pregnancy.
  • Recent pregnancy: Even if you just had a baby, it's possible for ovulation to occur sooner than you might think. The early signs of pregnancy may not be as clear in a woman who recently gave birth.
  • Mental illness: Some research has suggested that women with certain mental health disorders may find it difficult to accept the reality of pregnancy, leading to denial.

Recap

In a cryptic pregnancy, the typical signs may not be obvious or can be mistaken for something else. There are several possible causes of cryptic pregnancies. These include irregular periods, failure of birth control, and mental health challenges.

Complications

Being unaware of a pregnancy, even if it's only for a short time, may harm the health of both the mother and baby. When a woman doesn’t realize she is pregnant, she doesn't receive the prenatal medical care that is important for a healthy pregnancy.

Research suggests that babies born from a cryptic pregnancy may be more likely to be underweight and born prematurely.

During a cryptic pregnancy, the usual tests will not have been done. This means healthcare providers won’t have information about the health of the fetus or the mother. Prenatal complications, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia (a serious blood pressure condition), would go unnoticed.

In addition, the pregnant woman may have consumed substances like alcohol or tobacco, which isn't safe to do while pregnant. The same may be true with certain medications.

If cryptic pregnancy lasts up until the time of birth, the woman may not realize she is in labor when it begins and might have to deliver the baby without any help.

Coping

Not knowing you are pregnant until the 20-week mark or later can be a stressful experience and cause many different emotions. You may feel confused, overwhelmed, rushed, worried, or even cheated of the pregnancy experience.

If your cryptic pregnancy is diagnosed before labor and delivery, check with your healthcare provider about receiving prenatal care. It is possible to have a healthy baby even if you don't realize you're pregnant. It's also important that your health is looked after.

They can also offer you support and help you better understand your situation and the road ahead.

Giving birth is a big change, especially if it's unexpected. It's normal to feel anxiety, doubt, or tiredness after having a baby. Perinatal depression—which is depression that can occur in the weeks after delivery—is fairly common, but treatable.

Talk to your healthcare provider or seek medical attention immediately if symptoms such as irritability, sadness, persistent doubts about caregiving, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, and trouble bonding with the baby get in the way of your daily life.

Summary

A cryptic pregnancy is one in which a woman is not aware she is pregnant until she is at least five months along.

It is not known exactly what causes cryptic pregnancies. Possible reasons include having an irregular menstrual cycle or a false negative pregnancy test.

Symptoms of pregnancy may be absent or so slight that they are ignored. Some women may not even develop a baby bump due to their anatomy.

Once a cryptic pregnancy is detected, prenatal care is the number one priority.

A Word From Verywell

It may seem hard to imagine how someone could miss the signs of pregnancy, but cryptic pregnancy does happen.

If you are sexually active and experience any unexplained symptom that usually goes along with pregnancy, it's a good idea to do a pregnancy test and check with your healthcare provider to confirm a diagnosis.

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8 Sources
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