We all do it.
The moment you pick up a baby — especially yours, but maybe even someone else’s — you start to sway.
You gently bounce your body and rock back and forth. If baby starts to cry, you shush them. If baby makes a noise, you babble happily back to them.
You don’t even realize that you’re doing it! No one ever taught you, and babies don’t come with instructions.
Is this your parenting instincts in action? Are these behaviors hard-wired into our evolutionary biology, just waiting for the right time to emerge? Do moms have stronger instincts than dads? Do all woman have a powerful urge to become moms?
Here’s an overview of parenting instincts and what all parents need to know about them:
The idea of a pre-disposed maternal instinct in all women is generally considered a myth. Both men and women can develop strong, nurturing bonds with a baby, and though there are hormonal differences between fathers and mothers who have just given birth, it’s really comes down to who gets hands-on parenting time and puts in the work to build that bond.
While it seems that parents have an innate instinct to sway, shush, and soothe a crying baby, experts say most of these behaviors are either learned by watching others or are natural behaviors called “stimming,” which everyone (even non-parents) possess and are often used to self-soothe or self-stimulate.
The truth is that virtually no aspect of parenting comes completely naturally or easy to anyone.
It’s hard work that must be learned on the job, under incredibly stressful conditions! You might have a leg up on certain things if you’ve spent time around kids or other parents in the past, but if you don’t feel an overwhelming flood of nurturing instincts right off the bat — that’s totally normal and you’re doing just fine.
Let’s take a closer look at some important meanings, myths, examples, and misconceptions about parenting instincts.
1. What is an instinct?
Human instincts, according to the University of Texas, are “genetically hard-wired behaviors that enhance our ability to cope with vital environmental contingencies.”
In other words, instincts are innate behaviors, urges, or emotions that help us survive.
For example, human babies have physical instincts (or reflexes) that help them thrive outside the womb like rooting and sucking — which help them find a mother’s breast or other food source.
More complicated examples of reflexes may be tribe loyalty, the desire to seek revenge, or greed.
Understanding the definition of a human instinct, the question becomes:
Are there specific instincts that we possess that help us raise children?
2. Parenting Instincts vs Instinctive Parenting
People mean a lot of different things when they talk about parenting instincts.
They may mean it in the casual and literal sense — your instincts as a parent to do what’s right for your kids. What does your gut tell you about what your child needs, or how you should handle a tricky parenting situation?
This ties into the idea of Instinctive Parenting, which is one of the main types of parenting styles.
Instinctive Parenting refers to parents who don’t follow a specific set of rules or guidelines when parenting their children — they rely on their instincts, or gut feelings, cues they pick up from their children, and the ways in which they were raised themselves.
However, parenting instincts can also refer to seemingly subconscious or unconscious observable behaviors that parents engage in with their kids, especially babies and newborns.
Below, let’s explore some examples of those instincts and if they are, in fact, instincts at all!
3. Is there a difference between maternal instinct and paternal instinct? Can a man have maternal instincts?
In many cultures, there’s a widespread belief that women possess a natural maternal instinct.
That is to say, that they instinctively desire to become mothers and are genetically predisposed to nurturing, caregiver roles.
The idea of maternal instinct is mostly a myth, greatly exaggerated due to gender stereotypes and a misinterpretation of hormonal changes in new mothers.
The hormone oxytocin is released during labor and breastfeeding in mothers, which can play a role in feelings of love and affection between mother and baby.
But newer research suggests that similar brain-level responses can be found in homosexual male parents, and in fact any father who receives lots of hands-on parenting time with his baby.
According to Leann Poston M.D., M.B.A., M.Ed.. from Invigor Medical:
“I think men and women have the same potential parental instincts.
“The one benefit that women have always been felt to have to facilitate bonding is the release of the hormone oxytocin after birth. However, adoption studies and studies on the parental instincts of fathers have demonstrated that increased oxytocin levels are not reserved only for mothers who give birth.”
In other words, most experts now believe that the act of parenting itself (hands-on, engaged contact with a baby) activates certain neural pathways that lead to things like:
- and more
These emotions are not exclusively reserved for mothers and can be activated in almost anyone.
4. Are behaviors like shushing, swaying, and other forms of baby soothing instinctive or learned?
Do you remember the last time you held a baby?
Chances are, whether you’re a complete rookie or a veteran parent, you started gently swaying from side to side, bouncing the baby, or shushing him.
You may have barely been aware that you were doing these things!
So are soothing behaviors like swinging and shushing examples of parenting instincts in action?
The answer is… probably not.
Leann Poston says:
“I think the majority of parenting behaviors are learned by watching others and imitating their behaviors. I also think that most of them are unconscious. Sometimes you even see other adults begin to rock back and forth slightly when they are not even the one holding the baby.”
We’ve all had a lifetime of exposure to other parents, not to mention parents in movies and on television, that we have likely absorbed a lot of solid baby soothing techniques.
We put them into action without even thinking about it, which makes them feel like instinct — even though they’re probably not.
New parents also learn rapidly on the job without even realizing it.
It doesn’t take much time holding a crying baby before you start trying to move your body or make noises to soothe it!
Before you know it, you figure out what works and keep on doing it.
Poston also invoked the concept of “stimming,” or self-stimulation.
Stimming can refer to any repetitive movement like:
- Drumming fingers
- Biting fingernails
- Twirling hair
- Jiggling your foot
- Rocking/swaying your body
It’s commonly seen in people with autism and similar disorders, though everyone does them to some degree.
“These behaviors called stimming are present in everyone,” Poston says.
“They can be used to block excessive stimulation, provide sensory stimulation, reduce pain, or manage emotions. That seems to suggest that there is also an instinctual or neurologic basis for the behaviors.”
It’s highly possible that we apply some of these natural instincts to soothe babies, which would mean they’re not specific to parents.
5. What are some other examples of parenting instincts?
Rocking, swaying, or shushing a baby are behaviors that seem to come naturally to people, parents and otherwise.
But there are plenty of other behaviors, emotions, or urges that are sometimes considered “parenting instincts,” though we know now they’re probably a combination of learned behaviors and hormonal expressions:
- Reaction to your baby’s cry, or distinguishing between types of cries
- Baby talk and babble
- The way you hold your baby
- The urge to clean toys
Nesting, for example (the phenomenon of expectant mothers having a spike in the urge to clean and prepare the house for baby’s arrival) is usually referred to as an instinct.
There is evidence that nesting has evolutionary roots and purpose, however, it’s also practical — it needs to be done! It can also be influenced by what we seen in media and on social media, with a heavy dash of societal expectations placed on women to nest.
A lot of people also consider breastfeeding to be an instinctual behavior, but in reality it’s extraordinarily difficult and many moms and babies have trouble with it.
It hardly compares to simple, unconscious actions like bouncing your baby or rubbing its back.
In the end, it’s hard to differentiate between a parenting behavior being pure instinct, or part instinct and part learned behavior, or some combination of other factors and influences.
Your natural inclination to rock a baby, for example, is likely a specific application of “stimming” techniques that everyone possesses with a touch of your observations of other parents with their babies over the years.
Nesting may have its roots in an evolutionary, instinctual behavior — but it’s also heavily influenced by outside factors.
And the loving, affectionate bond we all desire to have with our baby can come easy to some folks, but modern research suggests it mostly stems from hands-on parenting time and not some natural nurturing inclination that only women have!
Just remember that parenting is difficult. Every facet of it is hard and must be learned through trial, error, and effort. Don’t expect it to be easy because of “instinct” — if you can’t get your baby to stop crying, or if you don’t feel a strong attachment to them at first, it doesn’t mean your instincts are broken.
Remember to allow yourself some grace when parenting gets really hard.
If you liked this piece, check out my other deep dives like:
- How to be a better dad, according to science
- Everything you need to know about rewards for kids
- Why stay-at-home dads matter
Hope this helps!