What Is a Cryptic Pregnancy?

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A cryptic pregnancy happens when a person is unaware that they're expecting until halfway through the pregnancy, or sometimes up until labor or birth. Also referred to as a "stealth" or "denied" pregnancy, available research estimates that as many as 1 in 475 pregnancies go undetected or unnoticed until the 20-week (5-month) mark.

There are several potential reasons for having a cryptic pregnancy, such as an absence of typical pregnancy symptoms, a false negative pregnancy test result, or, perhaps less commonly, denial due to mental health issues.

There don't appear to be specific risk factors, as experts haven't been able to define a set of concrete characteristics that would make someone more likely to have a cryptic pregnancy.

Woman in hospital room

Image taken by Mayte Torres / Moment / Getty Images

Signs

Cryptic pregnancy is a pregnancy that goes undetected or unnoticed, so there may not be any typical pregnancy symptoms like fatigue, nausea and vomiting, missed periods, and abdominal swelling.

If there are any signs of pregnancy, they may be reduced or vague enough to attribute to another cause. For example, it could be possible to write off morning sickness as an upset stomach or the absence of a period to menstrual cycle irregularity.

Because there aren't any clear signs of a cryptic pregnancy, it can be difficult to recognize and diagnose, even by relatives and healthcare providers. For this reason, increasing awareness and education around cryptic pregnancy is needed so that people with even a vague pregnancy symptom can be medically evaluated if necessary.

Causes

While there's not a one-size-fits-all reason for having a cryptic pregnancy, experts have identified several different scenarios that could contribute to an undetected pregnancy:

  • Lack of pregnancy symptoms: Common pregnancy symptoms like nausea, pelvic cramping, low back pain, and an enlarged abdominal area look and feel different for each person, and may not be noticeable.
  • Irregular menstrual cycle: Irregular periods can make it difficult to determine whether you've missed a period, especially 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 mirror early menopause symptoms, while a past infertility diagnosis may make it difficult to believe that a pregnancy is possible.
  • Inaccurate pregnancy test results: Pregnancy tests are usually pretty accurate, but there is a chance for errors that can result in a false negative test result when a person is actually pregnant.
  • No prominent “baby bump”: A pregnancy belly could be camouflaged if a person is overweight or obese or there may be factors that result in less pregnancy weight gain.
  • Not feeling the baby move: The location of the fetus and placenta can affect how a pregnant person may feel fetal movement. With anterior placenta placement, it may take longer to feel the movements, and they may be more difficult to recognize.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS can cause hormonal imbalances that can throw off ovulation, leading to an unexpected pregnancy that may go unnoticed.
  • Birth control use: Birth control isn't always foolproof. Even when taken correctly, it's possible to become pregnant.
  • Recent pregnancy: Postpartum fertility timing varies by person, so it's possible for ovulation to occur sooner than you might think. After recently giving birth, the early signs of pregnancy may not be as obvious.
  • Mental illness: While it appears to be rarer, some research has suggested that certain mental health disorders could make it difficult to accept the reality of pregnancy, leading to denial.

Even with studies showing that pregnancy can go undetected until birth in up to 1 in 2,455 pregnancies, researchers haven't found any clear identifying risk factors that would make a person more prone to experiencing a cryptic pregnancy.

Complications

Being unaware of pregnancy, even if it's only for the first 20 weeks, has the potential to risk the health of both mom and baby. When a person doesn’t realize that they’re pregnant, they don’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 the cryptic pregnancy, the baby won't have been monitored properly, and healthcare providers won’t have information about potential abnormalities, complications, or the safest delivery method. Prenatal complications, such as hypertension, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia, would go under the radar.

In addition, the pregnant person may have consumed alcohol or tobacco, which aren't safe to do while pregnant. Plus, if cryptic pregnancy lasts up until the time of birth, the person may not realize they're in labor when it begins and could have to deliver the baby without any assistance.

Coping

Not knowing you are pregnant until the 20-week mark or later can be a stressful experience and cause many different emotions. Know that you can turn to your healthcare team to confirm a pregnancy diagnosis and receive guidance on pregnancy and postnatal support.

If your cryptic pregnancy is diagnosed before labor and delivery, check with your healthcare provider about receiving prenatal care. While it's possible to have a healthy baby even if you don't realize you're pregnant, it's also a good idea to get adequate prenatal care to increase the odds that the baby will be healthy and minimize any health risks.

Giving birth is a big change, especially if it's unexpected, so it's normal to feel anxiety, doubt, or fatigue after birth. 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.

If you notice any unusual or new symptoms that may be related to your menstrual cycle that could indicate a cryptic pregnancy, do a pregnancy test and call your healthcare provider or other healthcare professional if it is positive or if you are still concerned after a negative test.

A Word From Verywell

From an outsider's perspective, it may seem difficult to understand how the signs of pregnancy can be missed, but cryptic pregnancy does happen. Keep in mind that pregnancy is different for every person, and pregnancies may look different even in the same person.

Increasing awareness about cryptic pregnancy may help increase prenatal care access in these situations, which will hopefully improve health outcomes for mom and baby.

Remember that if you are sexually active and experience a vague, unexplained symptom associated 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
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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