WTF Is A Cryptic Pregnancy? An OB-GYN Explains This Wild Phenomenon
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi-slash-horror movie, but it’s a real thing.
TikTok can be a wealth of incredible parenting information, but that doesn't mean it won't sometimes scare the sh*t out of you. If your FYP has served you videos from people who didn't know they were pregnant — some even going into labor without knowing WTF is going on — you've likely got some serious questions about how that can happen IRL and not just as a plot point on a TLC series.
Cryptic pregnancy sounds like straight-up nightmare fuel, and honestly, it kinda is. With upwards of 200 million views on TikTok alone, people who have been pregnant for several months without even realizing it are sharing their stories on social media. And just like everything pregnancy-related, it's equal parts wild, hilarious, heartfelt, and genuinely terrifying.
So, what is a cryptic pregnancy, and how common is it? Should we all be taking regular pregnancy tests until we're safely out of menopause? An OB-GYN is here to break it all down and (hopefully!) help put you at ease.
WTF is a cryptic pregnancy, anyway?
First things first, let's define it. "A 'cryptic' pregnancy is not a medical term," explains Staci Tanouye, MD FACOG. "It's more of a social term used to describe someone who is pregnant but doesn't realize it until later in pregnancy."
There are actually several reasons why someone might not know or be able to acknowledge they are pregnant, says Tanouye. "While denial could be a factor, there are many normal physiologic variations that are more common. Some people may not experience many pregnancy symptoms, or the ones they have could be mild, or they may attribute symptoms to a different medical concern."
So, you're likely wondering how this is both possible and common enough that people have stories to share on social media. "Most people will have some other symptoms of pregnancy that could clue them in: nausea, vomiting, cramping, a growing abdomen," she says. "Usually about halfway through pregnancy, we would expect fetal movement that will only get stronger and stronger as a fetus grows and develops."
And a cryptic pregnancy could bring all those symptoms, but it's entirely possible they're not recognizable to the person as being related to pregnancy, says Tanouye. "Some people may not get any morning sickness, or some may attribute nausea to other causes — GI issues, food intolerances, life changes, etc. Some people may be used to not getting a period very often due to things like PCOS, so unexpected bleeding due to pregnancy complications could be mistaken for irregular periods."
Tanouye notes that even typical fetal movement can be hard to detect due to normal variations during pregnancy. For example, a placenta that is anterior or on the front wall of the uterus can act like a "pillow" when baby moves, cushioning and blunting movements… so those telltale flutters and kicks might be missing for some expecting mamas.
You might also hear these cases referred to as a "stealth" pregnancy, as if it's something out of a sci-fi mystery movie, or a "denied" pregnancy, which Tanouye says happens when someone simply can't or won't acknowledge that they are pregnant. If you've never been pregnant before, are very young, or have developmental disabilities, it can be extremely easy not to realize you're pregnant or to miss signs and symptoms along the way. If you've recently given birth and you're still nursing, your hormone levels could take a long time to regulate back to pre-pregnancy levels, which can also increase the chances of confusion.
What are the potential risks of a cryptic pregnancy?
Tanouye says there are some silver linings to this low-key scary scenario. "Even if someone doesn't realize they are pregnant until later in pregnancy, most pregnancies can still progress and deliver normally. However, there are some increased risks associated with lack of prenatal care. These risks can lead to increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, neonatal complications, and maternal complications like hypertensive disorders of pregnancy."
There's also the emotional component and the understandable trauma that may occur if you hadn't planned on becoming pregnant or didn't think you were, for whatever reason. Proper prenatal care — for both body and mind — is crucial, so it's always worth checking in with your doctor for any concerns at any time.
How common is this?
Rest assured that despite what you may see on TikTok, this isn't a particularly common phenomenon. According to studies cited by the Cleveland Clinic, roughly 1 in 475 pregnancies go unnoticed until about the 20-week mark, while around 1 in 2,500 pregnancies go unnoticed until delivery. In other words, while it is possible, it's not particularly likely… thankfully.
Is there any way to prevent a cryptic pregnancy?
If you've experienced fertility issues, are in perimenopause, rely on hormonal birth control methods, don't get regular periods, and/or don't have the telltale typical pregnancy signs and symptoms, it's easy to see how you could write off unrelated symptoms and not realize you're pregnant. What's more, you could even get a false negative on a home pregnancy test, especially if you accidentally misuse the test or take the test too early on for it to detect a pregnancy.
As with any health concerns, it's always a good idea to reach out to your doctor if you notice something amiss. Even if you just feel a little "off" or have mild symptoms, if something feels new or unusual to you, there's no shame in chatting with your doctor, who can help you navigate whatever might be going on.
That said, Tanouye says that stocking up on home pregnancy tests isn't the worst move. "For people who may purposely skip periods or even for those with irregular periods due to a medical condition such as PCOS, having home pregnancy tests can be helpful to reassure that someone is not pregnant with a missed period. This is easier now that places like Amazon sell home pregnancy tests in bulk for cheap."
Of course, it might be a solid move to step away from TikTok when you're feeling frazzled by your FYP. Those endless scrolls sometimes serve only to freak you the eff out, and that doesn't help anyone, right?