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The Maternal Insinct Myth

I don't usually write about being a mother (with the exception of how daycare pickups relate to the use of soft data), but I recently a came across a question on Quora which ruffled my feathers. The individual was asking for examples of human "motherly instincts".

When I become a mom, I felt like I was failing at it because I didn't instinctively know what my baby needed. I was not filled with certainty, serenity, and love the moment I saw my child.

When I looked at my newborn’s face for the first time, the only thing I felt was intense responsibility.

That was followed by slight panic and confusion over what to do next. Feelings of love came later, once the initial shock of becoming a parent had worn off. 

I constantly worried about how I should respond to my baby’s needs. I wondered if I was doing thing things “right.” My internet search history was filled with questions about sleeping, crying, feeding, how much tummy time to give, etc. I called family members who had been mothers all the time asking for advice. Nothing really felt “natural” to me. 

Which brings me back to the question about maternal instincts. Let me begin with instincts in general.


What Are Instincts?

For a behavior to qualify as an instinct, it must be automatic, irresistible, triggered by the environment, occur at some particular time, require no training, be unmodifiable, and occur in allindividuals of a species (1).

Think about how a dog shakes its fur after going for a swim: all dogs - even young puppies - do this and they do not have to be taught this behavior.

Dogs are relatively simply mammals that still exhibit many instincts of their wild ancestors. However, the more complex the organism, the more life experience and the environment can affect behavior.

Humans are the most complex lifeforms on earth, far removed from our ape cousins, with robust cultures and ever-changing environments. As such, behaviors like “mothering” can no longer be regarded as automatic or innate. Most humans can now choose when and if they want to become mothers, and how they wish to become one (adoption, surrogate, etc).

To put it shortly, there is no such thing as human ”motherly instincts.” If those did exist, the world would not be full of books, articles, and internet forums debating the “best” way to raise a child.


So What Drives Human Mothering?

Human motherhood is a mix of “evolved biological and psychological mechanisms with an instinctive basis” (2). By this I mean that mothering is a combination of biological impulses (such as bonding hormones), human psychology (motherhood behaviors which fulfill the need of the brain, or don’t), and social factors (growing up and learning what mothers “should” be like). Mothering behaviors differ between cultures and change with time.

Breastfeeding is one example. During the last stages of pregnancy, colostrum and milk are secreted in response to hormonal changes in a mother’s body. The nipples becomes erect and the “let down” reflects allows milk to flow. These are biological consequences of giving birth, not instincts (remember, instincts are behaviors!).

The new baby, on the other hand, IS born with an instinct: to suckle (3). That pressure stimulates the mother’s ejection reflex, squirting milk into the baby’s mouth.

In delivery wards, nurses and lactation specialists assist with the breastfeeding process, teaching proper form and positioning to new mothers (who choose to breastfeed) to ensure proper feeding, as breastfeeding does not come naturally to most women.

In the United States during 1950’s, the predominant attitude to breastfeeding was that it was something practiced by the uneducated and those of lower classes who couldn’t afford formula. In fact, breastfeeding was actually discouraged by medical practitioners of the time. This societal factor caused a huge decline in breastfeeding regardless of the realities of human biology - just one example of how when and where we live can greatly affect how we parent.

“Motherhood” is really a way of talking about the bond between a mother and child. Some mothers report feeling an instant bond with their babies during their ultrasounds, while others this moments after birth. Others take days, weeks, or even months after birth to bond with their newborns (4).

What Does Science Actually Prove?

There are some interesting studies which show consistent reactions in the brains of new mothers regarding their children (but a reaction in the brain is separate from instinctual behavior). For example, a group of new mothers watch videos of their babies smiling, then crying, while in an MRI machine. The scans showed that particular circuits in the brain were activated when a mother distinguished the smiles and cries of her own baby from those of other infants. The women responded more strongly to their child’s crying than to smiling, which seemed “to be biologically meaningful in terms of adaptation to specific demands associated with successful infant care,” the study authors noted. (4)


Our Brains Flaws Allow Us Believe In "Instincts"

Another mother answered the Quora question that she sometimes “just knows" things about her children, proving instincts exist. In reality, this is because mothers generally pay the most attention to their children on a consistent basis, know the child’s entire past history, and can therefore quickly recognize changes in behavior, signs of illness, etc. Add in confirmation bias (“I knew something was wrong with Sally”), attention bias (“Because I was worried about Sally, I noticed Sally more”), and countless other cognitive biases, and some parents might misconstrue their skills (or lack of them) as a parent as “instinct” but this, as we’ve now seen, is far too reductionist. Additionally, this would suggest that same sex couples or single fathers not posses the same skills as mothers in raising their children, which is not true.

The rejection of motherly instincts isn’t an attack on mothers or any parent, in fact, it’s proof that parenting takes real skill and work, and requires continual learning an adaptation.

  1. Ragsdale, G., Phd. (2013, December 18). The Maternal Myth. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from
  2. Dickens, W. T.; Cohen, J. L.. (2003). Instinct and choice: A framework for analysis. In C. Garcia Coll (Ed.), Nature and nurture: The complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior and development.
  3. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Newborn-Reflexes. Stanford Children's Health. (n.d.). Retrieved November 01, 2016, from default - Stanford Children's Health
  4. Maternal Bond. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from
  5. Noriuchi, M., Kikuchi, Y., & Senoo, A. (2008). The Functional Neuroanatomy of Maternal Love: Mother’s Response to Infant’s Attachment Behaviors. Biological Psychiatry, 63(4), 415-423. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.05.018