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Maternal instinct is a myth, but that’s a good thing

by Anya Dunham, PhD

When you don’t count on maternal instinct, you are free to learn and grow as a parent.

Maternal instinct myth: pregnant woman looking for information

Everyone's journey of learning to parent is unique. What parenting is made of – love, responsibility, devotion, sacrifice, joy – is difficult to describe and, perhaps, even more difficult to study.  But science does help answer these questions you may be wondering about:

  • Will I naturally know what to do once my baby is here? (Short answer: No; it is natural to not know what to do.)
  • Should I trust expert advice or my gut feeling? (Short answer: Both - and, ideally, together.)

This article will tell you why. I hope it empowers and inspires you as you begin - or continue - your parenting journey.

The maternal instinct myth

I am sure you’ve heard of maternal instinct: the idea that women naturally know how to raise children. Are women indeed predisposed to knowing how to care for babies – and do men lack such predisposition?

Science says, no. Maternal instinct as a magical and immediate set of skills and knowledge available to mothers does not exist.

What does exist is a caregiving drive, or, as scientists call it, “parental care motivational system”. Neuroscience has shown that seeing babies’ faces and hearing babies cry activates two powerful desires in human adults:

  1. A desire to nurture which makes us tender, empathetic, selfless, and caring;
  2. A desire to protect which makes us alert, extra careful, and risk averse.

Together, these form the caregiving drive. Caregiving drive is universal: it is present regardless of a parent’s gender, sexual orientation, or age. It is activated in both mothers and fathers.1-7 What is more, adults who are not parents show similar brain activation patterns in response to babies. We are all made to care.

These brain patterns emerge in just 100 milliseconds. This tells us that caregiving drive is subconscious: it does not require rational thinking, it just happens.6

Universal, biology-based, subconscious caregiving drive makes all of us – mothers, fathers, and other committed caregivers – want to care for our babies the best we can. But, for better or for worse, it does not tell us how. You will have to figure it out yourself, and to do that you will need both expert advice and your intuition.

Evidence-based information

Not surprisingly, having access to evidence-based information increases parents' competence and is associated with better child development and health outcomes.8  But surveys show that although most first-time parents want to learn about parenting and child development, they often have a hard time finding clear and trustworthy advice. The amount of information can be overwhelming and quality is often inconsistent.9 

To find the signal though the noise, look for reliable, evidence-based information from: 

  • Trusted health care professionals, and
  • Solid scientific studies.

Your intuition

If maternal instinct is a myth, why do so many mothers and fathers show a strong sense of just knowing when something is wrong (or right) with their children?  This “sixth sense” or “gut feeling” – our intuition – indeed exists. But it does not switch on as soon as we become parents.

In contrast with conscious and deliberate evidence-based knowledge, intuition is subconscious and automatic:  it allows us to know something without analyzing or weighing the facts.  It’s a way of knowing without being able to explain how we know.

But intuition is still a very real form of knowledge, because, as it turns out, it has to do with the way our brains store, process, and retrieve information.10,11  When you have that “gut feeling”, your brain subconsciously combines information drawn from your past experiences and stored in your memory.12

So, intuition is the synthesis of experiences we carry within us. But where do these experiences come from? Well, it could be:

  • Careful observation;
  • Culture; or
  • Biases and fads.

These three sources are not equally reliable.  And because of this, intuition can be amazingly accurate, but can also be very wrong.13

~ Careful observation

The first source of parenting intuition is our children themselves. We develop intuition as we spend time with them and get to know them better than anyone else. For example, intuitive parents speak directly to their baby, adjust distances based on how far babies can see, and fine-tune what they do sensing their baby’s need for stimulation or rest.14

Careful observation will help you get to know your baby and understand her needs – and doing so will help your baby’s natural development unfold. Seemingly small things you notice will accumulate over time to form your special intuitive knowledge of your baby.

Maternal instinct myth: parents develop intuition by being with their baby

~ Culture

Intuition can also stem from cultural beliefs. Cultures differ in routines and rituals, sleep arrangements, traditional foods, and many other aspects of daily life. Parenting within culture can create experiences and environments that are positive, consistent, predictable, and similar to what children are likely to encounter outside their family as they grow. However, acting upon intuitions that stem from cultural beliefs blindly - without checking them against evidence-based knowledge – can lead parents astray.

For example, a cultural belief that babies are born “blank slates” could lead parents to missing their baby’s unique abilities and temperament, expose baby to overstimulation, and impact secure attachment. (When in fact, science shows babies are born very tuned in.)

~ Biases and fads

Finally, what we consider intuition may also be what Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Nurtureshock call “a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history, and old (disproven) psychology”. There are also parenting fads - messages of what we 'must do' from parenting influencers. We might carry media messages and peer pressure in our memories - and subconsciously use them for what we think is intuitive decision-making. Such intuitions are usually wrong.

Combining evidence-based information and intuition

Research suggests that our brains are able to combine intuitive and evidence-based knowledge even when we are not fully aware of where our intuition is coming from.15 This is important. It means that evidence-based knowledge can help you hear your true intuition.

Not knowing is a good thing

I remember a friend saying: “I am a mom, and I should know what I am doing. I should be naturally good at this, but I don’t think I am”.

The maternal instinct myth is so common. But what is natural – and perfectly okay – is to not know what to do when you first become a parent. Whether you are a new mom or a new dad, a biological parent or an adoptive parent, you will not naturally know what to do. (I think this can be one of several surprises during baby's first year.)

The idea that one should instinctively and instantly know what to do once they become a parent is unrealistic. It can bring anxiety, stress, and a sense of failure. (Hear me talk about it on The Science of Motherhood Podcast with Dr. Renee White.)

As you begin or continue your journey of science-based parenting, look for evidence-based information: advice from trusted health care practitioners and scientists. Consider this advice deliberately and carefully before making decisions, and it will help you filter out irrelevant cultural messages, biases, and fads you could have mistaken for intuition. Then, you are free to use truly intuitive knowledge – your unique knowledge that comes from carefully observing your baby – wisely.

(If you have a partner, look for information and get to know your baby together.  Learning to parent as a team is one of 3 ways to strengthen your relationship after becoming parents.)


1. Bornstein MH, Putnick DL, Rigo P, Esposito G, Swain JE, Suwalsky JTD, et al. (2017) Neurobiology of culturally common maternal responses to infant cry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(45):E9465-E73

2. Swain JE, Lorberbaum JP, Kose S, Strathearn L. (2007) Brain basis of early parent–infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 48(3‐4):262-87

3. Swain JE, Kim P, Spicer J, Ho S, Dayton CJ, Elmadih A, et al. (2014) Approaching the biology of human parental attachment: Brain imaging, oxytocin and coordinated assessments of mothers and fathers. Brain Research 1580:78-101

4. Gustafsson E, Levréro F, Reby D, Mathevon N. (2013) Fathers are just as good as mothers at recognizing the cries of their baby. Nature Communications 4(1):1-6

5. Abraham E, Hendler T, Shapira-Lichter I, Kanat-Maymon Y, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. (2014) Father's brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(27):9792-7

6. Young KS, Parsons CE, Jegindoe Elmholdt E-M, Woolrich MW, van Hartevelt TJ, Stevner AB, et al. (2016) Evidence for a caregiving instinct: rapid differentiation of infant from adult vocalizations using magnetoencephalography. Cerebral Cortex 26(3):1309-21

7. Schaller M. (2018) The parental care motivational system and why it matters (for everyone). Current Directions in Psychological Science 27(5):295-301

8. Bornstein MH, Cote LR, Haynes OM, Hahn C-S, Park Y. (2010) Parenting knowledge: Experiential and sociodemographic factors in European American mothers of young children. Developmental psychology 46(6):1677

9. Zero to Three and the Besos Family Foundation Foundation (2016) Tuning In: Parents of Young Children Speak Up About What They Think, Know and Need: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/tuning-in-parents-of-young-children-tell-us-what-they-think-know-and-need

10. Papoušek H, Papoušek M. (2002) Intuitive parenting. P. 183-203 in M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting: Biology and ecology of parenting. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers

11. Hodgkinson GP, Langan‐Fox J, Sadler‐Smith E. (2008) Intuition: A fundamental bridging construct in the behavioural sciences. British Journal of Psychology 99(1):1-27

12. Baylor AL. (1997) A three-component conception of intuition: Immediacy, sensing relationships, and reason. New ideas in psychology 15(2):185-94

13. Myers DG, Myers DG. (2002) Intuition: Its powers and perils: Yale University Press.

14. Koester LS, Lahti-Harper E. (2010) Mother-infant hearing status and intuitive parenting behaviors during the first 18 months. American Annals of the Deaf 155(1):5-18

15. Lufityanto G, Donkin C, Pearson J. (2016) Measuring intuition: nonconscious emotional information boosts decision accuracy and confidence. Psychological science 27(5):622-34

Using hundreds of scientific studies, Baby Ecology connects the dots to help you create the best environment for sleep, feeding, care, and play for your baby.

Book cover with baby on green grass and text Baby Ecology