What Does Maternal Instinct Really Mean

Maternal Instinct

You may have had people assure you that you’ll “just know” what to do once your baby arrives–it’s instinct! U.S. culture sometimes idealizes motherhood as a natural, intuitive process. It may sound good on the surface, but the idea of maternal instinct tends to leave new dads out in the cold, and put a lot of pressure on moms to take on their new role without a hiccup. “Maternal instinct” is mostly a myth–and that’s a good thing.

Maternal Myth #1: Women Are “Wired” for Babies

Popular terms like the “biological clock” or “baby fever” make it sound like a desire for children is hardwired into a woman’s body. The truth is, while some women deeply want children, others never feel the urge, and still more may have conflicted feelings.

Women, like men, are biologically programmed to want sex, which tends to lead to babies. But women aren’t equipped with a special “extra” gene that makes them want to be mommies. That’s an individual choice.

Maternal Myth #2: Moms Are Innately Nurturing

The second time you’re likely to hear about maternal instincts is in the early stages of life with an infant. Some well-meaning family, friends, or even medical providers may reassure new moms that they’ll “just know” what to do for their baby.

For one thing, it can be disheartening for new dads to feel like they lack an essential, instinctive way to bond with their new baby. Overemphasizing maternal instinct may also make it harder for new moms to admit or ask for help when they don’t know what to do.

In families where the mother handles most of the childcare, she will probably have a stronger intuition about how to soothe the crying baby. But it’s not necessarily instinct. It’s experience. Encouraging new fathers to spend plenty of time caring for their babies gives mothers a break and improves the chances that dads will get the experience they need to understand their new baby.

New moms who feel confused about baby care or struggle with negative as well as positive emotions aren’t broken or “bad” mothers. Feeling competent as a mother often comes with practice, and sometimes with additional support for PPD or postpartum anxiety.

The Reality: Bonding With Baby

What is true is that many mothers, either immediately or in the early weeks and months of their baby’s life, form a strong bond with their baby. During your baby’s birth and when you breastfeed, your body releases high doses of oxytocin, a hormone scientists associate with love and affection. Your brain activates differently when you see your baby versus a random infant. And both you and your baby may recognize each other by smell!

There are a few behavioral quirks that almost feel instinctive. Most people, and quite a few other mammals, automatically cradle their babies on their left side. Some scientists think this helps stimulate parts of your brain responsible for facial processing and memory, helping you bond deeply. If you’re breastfeeding, you may notice that your body falls in sync with your baby’s feeding patterns, and you may even find yourself regularly waking up with full breasts a few minutes before your baby cries!

New fathers may not breastfeed, but they get an oxytocin boost from cuddling or playing with their newborns, too. Taking a class before baby arrives can teach both of you skills and give you time to imagine life as parents. Prenatal bonding can improve the chances that you’ll feel a strong bond when the baby arrives.

Motherhood may not be driven by instinct, but both parents can develop emotional attachment and intuitive responses to their baby that feel ingrained, which is even better.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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