The term maternal instinct is so common across cultures that everybody takes it for granted that everybody else knows what it is. In short, the maternal instinct is thought of as a quality all women possess; an instinctive desire all women possess to become mothers and know by default how to care for them despite other needs, wants and experiences they may have had. However, this idea has been thoroughly challenged by science with some interesting results. Continue reading for all you need to know about what maternal instincts are and if all women have it.
What Is the Meaning of Maternal Instincts?
Instinct is a biologically programmed response to a stimulus, something that is innate to us that comes through our genes. Therefore the world maternal instinct based on the textbook definition of the word instinct is a set of behaviours and knowledge related to caregiving as a mother possessed by women. However, in reality, quite a lot of child caregiving is picked up culturally and with the help of experienced members of the group. Therefore the idea of maternal instinct according to some experts is highly exaggerated.
Further, the maternal instinct is also thought to be the driver that motivates women to have children and to care for them automatically. In reality, caring for a newborn child is an ‘on the job’ learning experience aided by external knowledge. Some women also take a while to develop feelings of attachment and affection towards their babies. When this happens they may feel they lack maternal instincts, but in reality, they need help with developing realistic expectations.
Examples of Maternal Instincts
While science cannot back it up, here are some examples that are attributed to motherly instinct:
1. The need to be a mother
Many women are unsure about pregnancy until they actually get pregnant, then it’s the feeling that it is the greatest thing that happened to them. Their happiness and peace and well-being grow after that.
2. Their child changes their perspective
Many women feel a lack of connection to children. However, as soon as they have theirs, their feelings change. They are able to bond deeply and nurture in unexpected ways.
3. Nursing comes naturally
The body is designed to nurture the baby and provide all it needs in the form of milk. While breastfeeding is a challenge to some women, it comes naturally to many as it has throughout the generations.
4. A sixth sense about your baby
The bond mothers develop is much stronger than what the fathers do. They are also more finely attuned to the needs and wants of the baby than the dads.
5. Building her nest
6. The smell of their newborn
Many parents like the smell of their newborn babies. Interestingly 90% of new mothers can recognize the smell of their own babies only 10 minutes after being with them.
7. Distinguish their baby’s sound
Mothers can distinguish the coo’s of their own babies over others. This shouldn’t be surprising as brain scans of mothers show significant differences when listening to the sounds of theirs and other baby sounds.
8. Understanding their baby
9. Mother’s Voice
Babies are finely tuned to pick up the sound of their mothers. They can also know the rhythm of the mother’s heart as they start hearing sounds at 24 weeks inside the womb.
10. The urge to clean things
Mothers unconsciously keep the toys and feeding equipment of the baby clean. When babies drop their pacifier, they immediately pick it up and wipe it clean before giving it back unconsciously.
11. Conversation with random sounds
It’s a common experience for people to see mothers to communicate with their babies without uttering a word. It’s like they have their own babble language. These sounds actually form the building blocks to structured sounds.
12. Instinct to protect
Women naturally become more protective as mothers and seem to display an instinct for it. They can take higher risks and handle a fight or flight situation well when needed.
13. How to burp a child
This strange instinct seems to run in some women. They know how exactly how to relieve their gassy child and get right to work to fix the issue. They won’t even need to teach how to hold them the right way to relieve the discomfort.
14. Can’t lie to mom
Parents, especially mothers are so finely attuned to the child’s emotional states and facial expressions that they can catch a lie instantly.
There’s no bond like a mother’s bond with her child and there’s a good reason for it. Many mothers literally have the cells of their baby embedded in their skin and organs from their pregnancy.
16. Lactating mothers have a faster protective response
Lactating women produce less corticotrophin-releasing hormone or CRH which makes them more tensed. This accelerates their fight or flight response.
17. Most women hold babies to the left
Most women hold their baby on the left shoulder when they pick them up. It could be that most women are right-handed. But it is also thought that it stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain.
18. Mother’s intuition
There is nothing which comes close to how well mothers understand their own babies. They can tell early on whether their little one is coming down with a cold or a stomach bug.
Is Motherly Instinct a Myth?
It is agreed by many experts that by definition maternal instinct is mostly a myth because all people regardless of their gender and sexual orientation can acquire a keen sixth sense for their children. It is often observed that parents can quickly realize the specific reason why their newborn is crying while others around are clueless. They can also pick up indications that the child is coming down with a cold. This awareness extends even into the teens when parents can automatically tell when their child is in trouble by knowing how quiet the room is. And yet, not of this is an instinctive process, it is all mostly learnt.
The maternal instinct psychology actually comes from experience and bonding with the child that happens over the years. It comes from countless hours spent with the child and a connection forged over the years and not an innate understanding of motherhood. So the intuition mothers seem to naturally have towards their children emerges out of their temperament, attachment style and experience. Many aspects of child care aren’t obvious to new mothers including nursing, calming and changing diapers. These are learnt through trial and error or with the help of others who can guide them.
Difference Between Motherly Instincts and Motherly Drive
Many of the ‘motherly instincts’ can be attributed to a ‘motherly drive’ in women. The terms instinct and drive are different. As explained before, instinct is a quality that comes innately. The example of true maternal instincts can be seen in animals where they can nurture or care for their young ones without any previous knowledge or experience. However, humans are different because we are flexible and adaptable. Therefore rigid instincts that apply to animals don’t work the same way in humans. An example is that when we are hungry we don’t just peck on dot-like animals do with their rigid instincts. Instead, we go to the fridge or walk to a nearby café to grab a bite.
A ‘drive’ is a state of motivation that comes in response to a need and the need comes through an underlying deprivation. A motherly drive comes from the hormonal changes that happen in the body during pregnancy and its impact on emotions and behaviour. However a lot of healthy women do not experience a maternal drive, but a lot of fathers experience it although they are never pregnant. Therefore what is generally seen is a ‘caring instinct’ in all parents.
How to Deal With People’s Expectations About You Having Maternal Instincts
When expectations are put on women that they need to instinctively know how to care for babies it creates a lot of pressure that could lead to problems like postpartum depression. Some women who may completely miss the maternal instinct psychology could end up feeling ashamed and blame themselves for it. To overcome this pressure it’s essential to understand that all women are wired differently and can perform better in time. There are lots of ways to be a good, loving mom and each one has her own way.
Scientifically, the maternal instinct is largely a myth as human beings do not have such an innate mechanism that prepares them with the knowledge for motherhood. The caring instinct that helps people become great parents is an acquired behaviour that comes with time and experience.