What Is a Cryptic Pregnancy?

When someone is pregnant and they don't know it

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A cryptic pregnancy, also called a stealth pregnancy or a denied pregnancy, is one in which a person does not know they are pregnant until about halfway through pregnancy or even up until labor or birth.

Common symptoms of a cryptic pregnancy may include typical pregnancy symptoms, such as spotting, nausea, cramping, swollen breasts, and fatigue. However, at times, it is possible to have no symptoms at all, including no baby bump.

Cryptic pregnancies can occur if a person doesn't notice or have any symptoms, believes their symptoms are due to another cause, or experiences denial about the pregnancy or the possibility of becoming pregnant. Mental health, developmental, or medical conditions, as well as certain circumstances, like trauma, can increase the risk of experiencing this condition.

This article goes over the causes and symptoms of a cryptic pregnancy. It also covers associated concerns and how to cope if you experience a cryptic pregnancy.

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

Verywell / Jessica Olah

What Causes a Cryptic Pregnancy?

Research is still limited when it comes to cryptic pregnancies. However, experts think some of the following factors contribute to a person not realizing they are pregnant:

  • Assumptions, meaning individuals don't believe they could become pregnant or are pregnant for various reasons
  • Unexpected symptom experience, meaning individuals don't experience what is generally expected when it comes to pregnancy symptoms
  • Life circumstances, such as age, family history, and/or past or ongoing trauma
  • Conditions, including mental, developmental, and medical conditions

While someone being pregnant and not knowing it may seem difficult for many to understand, limited discussions and research on the topic continues to contribute to the lack of awareness around this uncommon, but real condition.

Assumptions

Assumptions that can increase the risk of a cryptic pregnancy include:

  • Intermittent spotting: Bleeding and spotting that can occur during pregnancy can easily be mistaken for a light period.
  • Inaccurate pregnancy test results: Pregnancy tests are usually very accurate, but errors do happen—especially if a person does not test the right way or at the best time. It is possible for a pregnancy test to be negative even when a person is actually pregnant.
  • Early menopause: Pregnancy symptoms can be similar to early menopause symptoms. If you're between the ages of 45 and 55, which is the range menopause typically begins, you may attribute the symptoms to menopause, instead of pregnancy.
  • Fertility: If you've struggled with getting pregnant in the past, you may find it hard to believe that you could be pregnant.
  • Birth control use: Even when used correctly, it's possible to become pregnant when using birth control. People using contraception may not think they could be pregnant and ignore the signs.
  • Recent pregnancy: Ovulation can occur sooner than you'd think after you've had a baby. That said, the early signs of pregnancy may not be as clear in someone who recently gave birth and signs may be associated with the previous pregnancy and recovery.

Symptom-Related

Symptom-related factors that can increase the risk of a cryptic pregnancy include:

  • Lack of pregnancy symptoms: Common pregnancy symptoms like nausea, vomiting, pelvic cramping, lower back pain, fatigue, missed periods, and abdominal swelling can show up at different times and intensity levels, or may not show up at all depending on the individual.
  • Not realizing symptoms: In some cases, symptoms can show up, but may be mild or attributed to other causes. For example, an individual may believe morning sickness is an upset stomach or not getting their period may be an irregular menstrual cycle.
  • No prominent “baby bump:” A pregnant belly might not be obvious on someone who carries more weight in their abdomen. Some people do not gain much weight or start 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 movement. For example, with anterior placenta placement, the placenta is in the front of the uterus. When this happens, it may take longer to feel fetal movements and they can be trickier to recognize.

Life Circumstances

Certain life circumstances increase your risk of experiencing a cryptic pregnancy. These may include:

  • Young age: Research suggests that being young in age is a risk factor for a denied pregnancy in certain individuals.
  • Family history: Research suggests that individuals with a family member who has experienced a cryptic pregnancy were more at risk for also experiencing one.
  • Trauma: About one third of individuals who experience a rape-related pregnancy have cryptic pregnancies and don't know they're pregnant until the second trimester. In many cases, the perpetrator was someone the survivor knew. Survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence are at an increased risk of developing associated mental health conditions, as well as increased alcohol and drug use.

Conditions

Conditions that can increase the risk of a cryptic pregnancy include:

  • Irregular menstrual cycle: Irregular periods can make it hard to know whether you've missed a period. This is especially true if your menstrual 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.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS can cause hormonal imbalances that throw off ovulation. This can lead to an unexpected pregnancy that may go unnoticed.
  • Mental health and developmental conditions: Some research suggests that people with certain mental health conditions, including depressive disorders, schizophrenia, and certain personality disorders, as well as certain developmental conditions, such as an intellectual disability, are more at risk of experiencing a cryptic pregnancy.

Common Symptoms of a Cryptic Pregnancy

Symptoms of a cryptic pregnancy are the same symptoms associated with pregnancy in general. However, with a cryptic pregnancy, these symptoms may be mild, denied, or attributed to some other cause, such as birth control use, recent travel, work exhaustion, and/or diet or exercise changes.

Cryptic pregnancy symptoms may include:

How Common Are Cryptic Pregnancies?

As many as 1 in 475 pregnancies go undetected or unnoticed until the 20-week, or five-month, mark. One in 2,500 pregnancies goes unrecognized until a person goes into labor.

Cryptic Pregnancy Concerns

Not recognizing pregnancy—even just for a short time—can be dangerous for both the fetus and the pregnant person:

  • If a person does not realize they're pregnant, they won't get the prenatal care that is necessary for a safe and healthy pregnancy.
  • Without prenatal testing, serious complications—such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia—could go unnoticed.
  • If a cryptic pregnancy lasts up until the time of birth, a person may not realize that they are in labor. If they don't get to a hospital, they may have to deliver the baby on their own without any help.
  • Research has shown that babies born after a cryptic pregnancy might be more likely to be underweight and born prematurely, or born before week 37 of pregnancy.
  • If a person who did not know they were pregnant consumed substances like alcohol, tobacco, or certain medications, damage to the fetus could lead to structural or functional abnormalities.
  • Abortions for pregnancies past the first trimester mark involve a medical procedure. While these procedures are generally considered safe, the longer the pregnancy goes on, the higher the chances of experiencing associated risks.

Coping With a Cryptic Pregnancy

Not knowing you are pregnant until the 20-week mark or later can be incredibly stressful. You may feel confused, overwhelmed, trapped, angry, shocked, worried, as well as upset about being pregnant or missing out on the full pregnancy experience.

Know that any way you feel is valid and it's totally normal to feel a complex mix of emotions that may change as you continue to process the pregnancy.

If your cryptic pregnancy is diagnosed before you go into labor, you still have time to talk to your provider about prenatal care and pregnancy choices. They can offer support, resources, and guidance concerning:

  • What to expect as the pregnancy progresses
  • How to best prepare for labor and delivery
  • Abortion, along with associated risks depending on your specific circumstance
  • Adoption services
  • Parenting and new baby care
  • Mental health services

While it can be challenging, it's possible to have a healthy pregnancy and birth even if you didn't learn that you were pregnant until later.

Coping After Pregnancy

Giving birth and becoming a parent are major events—especially when you haven't been planning on it for months. Anxiety, doubt, and exhaustion after having a baby are normal.

If you had an abortion, experienced a miscarriage, or chose adoption for the baby, know that you may go through a wide range of emotions as well. In addition to the hormonal shifts, processing the outcome of a cryptic pregnancy can feel incredibly intense and exhausting.

It's important to prioritize your self-care during this time:

  • Speak with your healthcare provider about additional resources.
  • Contact a mental health professional who specializes in pregnancy-related concerns.
  • Join a support group for your specific concern.
  • Connect with trusted friends and family members who will support you during this time.
  • Don't ignore intense, persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, disconnection, or thoughts of harming yourself or others. Know that you are not alone and help is available.

Suicide Prevention Hotline

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

A cryptic pregnancy is one in which a person is not aware that they are pregnant until they are at least five months along.

Cryptic pregnancies can occur if a person doesn't have or notice any pregnancy symptoms, thinks they are due to another cause, or experiences denial about the pregnancy. Certain factors such as medical, developmental, or mental health conditions, as well as certain life circumstances can increase the risk of experiencing a cryptic pregnancy.

Cryptic pregnancies are associated with concerns for both the pregnant individual and the fetus. It's important to seek appropriate care as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long can a cryptic pregnancy last?

    A cryptic pregnancy can last almost half of someone's pregnancy or longer.

  • Do you get your period with a cryptic pregnancy?

    You won't menstruate if you're pregnant, but you may have spotting that is confused for a period. For example, some people get light bleeding when the fertilized egg implants into the uterus (implantation bleeding).

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cristina Mutchler
Cristina Mutchler is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in national media, specializing in health and wellness content.