Abstract The Theis equation has been widely used to study the transient movement of groundwater as a result of pumping in a confined aquifer. It is well known that the observed drawdown at early times has an obvious departure from the theoretical drawdown based on the Theis equation. The Theis equation was derived under the assumption that total stress in the aquifer was constant and the mechanical behavior of the confining unit was neglected. However, most geological formations, especially those which are well consolidated, have rigidity and therefore may bend like a plate to a certain extent. The increase in the effective stress in the aquifer due to pumping may not contribute entirely to the compression of the aquifer, but may be partially cancelled out by bending of the overlying aquitard. This means only a part of the total stress is used to compact the aquifer, or the aquifer cannot produce as much water as estimated from the Theis equation. This paper investigated the impact of the bending effect of the confining unit on drawdown. An analytical model which couples flow in the aquifer and bending of the confining unit was presented. The theory is based on elastic plates and solutions were given to the drawdown of groundwater level and deflection of the overlying formation. The drawdown estimated from the new equation was compared with that from the Theis equation. It can be concluded that drawdown from the Theis equation is less than the drawdown predicted by including the bending effect of the confining unit. Both a hypothetical example and a field pumping test in Shandong Province, China, were used to demonstrate the bending effect of the confining unit in the analysis of pumping test data. This paper demonstrated that the initial disagreement between observed drawdown and the Theis solution could be caused by the bending effect of the confining unit, a phenomenon not well addressed in traditional pumping test analysis. A quantitative understanding of this phenomenon can provide improved guidelines for analyzing drawdown data in a confined aquifer.