For men trying to become dads and fathers doubling down on kids, any change to their partner’s body or behavior can trigger hope. Unfortunately, the combination of high hopes and early indicators of pregnancy mirroring symptoms of PMS leads to disappointment for many couples. However, there are some clues that hopeful moms and dads can spot if they know how to look. The catch — of course there’s a catch — is that they don’t show up in everyone.
“Pregnancy is the same thing for so many people but it just affects them differently,” says Kathleen Rowland, a physician and professor at Rush Medical College. “It’s really weird how it’s the same condition.”
Some women experience zero early symptoms and have to rely on pregnancy tests to gauge levels of human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone women release in their blood and urine while pregnant. Other women might experience morning sickness so severe that they struggle to function. Women who want to be pregnant may be more prone to symptoms because they’re looking for them, Rowland says, but this hypersensitivity could lead to disappointment if it turns out to be something else.
Couples looking to identify early signs of pregnancy without getting their hopes up about what could be just another menstrual cycle should look to a woman’s nose for the clearest signs of early pregnancy. A heightened sense of smell and nasal congestion (absent from other cold symptoms) are both potential physiological responses to being pregnant. Pregnancy increases estrogen levels, which can cause nasal passages to swell and release more mucus, creating congestion. The reasons for an increased sense of smell are less clear though some scientists theorize that it has to do with the increased blood flow during pregnancy, or that it’s an adaptive instinct to protect expecting mothers and their fetuses for toxic odors. In any case, it’s a symptom many, many women cite that has little to do with PMS.
It’s important to note that a large reason why it’s become more difficult to rely on early signs of pregnancy as accurate markers in recent years is because home pregnancy tests have improved to the point of being able to beat many individual bodies to the punch. Pregnancy tests have gotten significantly better at measuring HCG levels, and the best ones on the market have advanced to the point of being to detect this at levels as low as 25 milli-international units per milliliter (mIU/mL) when in the past it took 50-100 (mIU/mL). For some women, this might mean that pregnancy tests can accurately predict pregnancy before their noses are aware of it.
Although Rowland acknowledges that many of these sophisticated, digital home pregnancy tests are as accurate as the ones at the doctor’s office, prospective parents still run the risk of getting their hearts broken by false positives, which can occur one of two ways. If urine is left on a test for too long, an evaporation line may appear that looks like a positive sign, which is why it is important to following instructors and not exceed the wait time. In other instances, especially when tests are taken prior to a missed period, women experience what’s called a “chemical pregnancy,” which is technically a miscarriage that takes place shortly after implantation. Many women not planning to get pregnant can experience these without knowing the difference between that and a period. But for couples hanging on every pee-covered plus sign, it can be a huge loss.
In the end, pregnancies are tenuous and more fragile early on, and the early signs need to be handled with care. It’s completely understandable for a man to get excited about his wife’s tender breasts after a rousing weekend of ovulating, but it’s important to keep your head up if she doesn’t turn out to be pregnant just yet. Your optimism isn’t a mistake, it’s a normal and healthy part of conceiving.
“It’s not that you’re wrong,” Rowland says. “It’s hope.”